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Christmas tree in front of ruined buildings in Ukraine
Украшенная елка в разрушенном войной украинском городе. A decorated Christmas tree in front of a war-torn Ukrainian city.

This past December, despite the war, cities across Ukraine did their best to return to their post-Soviet holiday traditions, celebrating holidays with communal Christmas trees, joyous Christmas markets, concerts, puppet shows, religious and secular processions, and much more. Since 1991, each city has established (or renewed) its distinctive holiday traditions. 

The Kyiv market in St. Sophia Square might be the largest, offering a wide array of traditional foods such as borscht, doughnuts, dumplings, and pies. The Kontraktova Square market across town in Podil is known for its massive skating rink. Lviv’s fair displays legendary pastries, chocolates, and coffee, together with decorative arts, toys, and a winter lantern display. Other markets pop up annually in Odesa, Ternopil, and Ivano-Frankivsk. 

Christmas 2022 was somber in comparison. Authorities permitted no large celebrations and markets. In Kyiv, white doves decorated a large tree in St. Sophia Square, which periodically was bathed in the national colors of yellow and blue. And this second Christmas since Russia’s invasion revolved around small family gatherings, since the harsh exigencies of war, the traumas of loss, and the continuing carnage on battlefields has eroded holiday cheer. 

Yet, Ukrainians were determined to carry on as best they could.  The western city of Ivano-Frankivsk has been protected from Russian attack more than most towns. Pressed up against the Carpathian Mountains, the city was long under the rule of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and, later, the Hapsburg Empire. Its cityscape exudes the charm of Central Europe, accentuated by magical mountain scenes and ski trails nearby. The city remained determined to celebrate the holiday season with good cheer, hosting its own Christmas market and opening its best restaurants to those who come to town. There was no war-imposed curfew in the city.

The previous year, Ivano-Frankivsk celebrations caught international attention with a “Christmas Tree of Victory” featuring children’s drawings of the coat of arms of liberated cities throughout Ukraine. Decorated by 350 local children, the tree also carried messages honoring those who suffered in the carnage of Russian occupation, such as at Bucha. The tree glowed with garlands powered by alternative energy sources so as not to exert pressure on Ukraine’s valuable but fragile energy grid.

In 2023, the holiday season included Pavlo Ilnytskyi’s “Sinatra: Christmas” show, featuring an orchestra led by conductor Dennis Adu. Ilnytskyi and Adu joined with the Ukrainian Armed Forces to bring this concert of Frank Sinatra hits to several cities around the country, including Ivanovo-Frankivsk. The Ivano-Frankivsk Regional Philharmonic followed with a jazz concert on Saturday, December 30. The Ivano-Frankivsk Theater offered a special children’s show, “The Magic of St. Nicholas,” just before Christmas, and “Puppy Patrol” arrived at a local sports arena the day after. The local puppet theater presented The Princess and the Painter. Children enjoyed riding brightly colored amusement park rides and skating on a large outdoor rink.

Far from the fighting, this past holiday season in Ivano-Frankivsk offered a modest antidote to wartime loss, and some tour agencies offered special excursions from other Ukrainian cities for those who wanted to capture the holiday spirit. The western Ukrainian city leveraged the advantages of being out of range of most Russian missiles and drones to hold a celebration for any Ukrainians who could attend. In a holiday season of small family gatherings and larger religious ceremonies, Ukrainians did what they could to celebrate; the country’s musicians and performers were there to help. 

The opinions expressed in this article are those solely of the author and do not reflect the views of the Kennan Institute.

About the Author

Blair A. Ruble

Blair A. Ruble

Distinguished Fellow;
Former Wilson Center Vice President for Programs (2014-2017); Director of the Comparative Urban Studies Program/Urban Sustainability Laboratory (1992-2017); Director of the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies (1989-2012) and Director of the Program on Global Sustainability and Resilience (2012-2014)
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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier U.S. center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more