Beautiful Holiday Traditions in Ukraine and Europe

boy and Christmas tree


What a year 2022 has been...I truly believe that most of us are happy that it’s over and we can ring in a new year!

No matter if we are affected by the war in Ukraine, inflation worries, political divisiveness, the bear stock market, gun violence, or anything else adverse that make us want to look at 2022 in the rear view mirror.

As spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle would put it, the collective pain body of the world is very intense right now, so it's more important than ever to get back to a state of calm and peace within ourselves.
With that said, I'm aiming to connect with the true spirit of the holidays this year. Across the religions that celebrate this season, it is about peace and harmony for the world, and the bringing of love, hope and joy. This is especially poignant for me this year, as I have many dear people around the world who will celebrate Christmas a little different than usual, because there is a war.

In June I started volunteering as English tutor for a wonderful young woman in Ukraine with the non-profit organization ENGin, as Ukrainians are in desperate need of becoming more competitive in the labor market for a better future. This largely depends on their English skills, and ENGin connects international English speakers and Ukrainian students to practice and improve their language skills . I cherish the time I get to spend with my student every week whenever we can, in between the power outages they currently endure. It also gives me a first-hand account on what's happening there, as she lives near Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital that has been under vicious Russian attacks lately. 
In this newsletter, I want to honor Ukrainians and their unbreakable spirit by highlighting the beautiful Ukrainian Christmas traditions. When you read about the traditional 12 Christmas dishes, you will be surprised that they are almost vegan! It is clear that Christmas this year will be very hard for Ukrainians, so please send your good wishes to them when you start your own celebrations.

In the next section I would like to introduce you to some holiday traditions of Germany, my home country.
And lastly, we will look at how European countries ring in the New Year with a selection of fun and quirky customs across Spain, Italy, France, Greece, Denmark, Scotland, Austria and Estonia. Get ready to smile!
To me, it is always interesting to learn how other cultures celebrate the holidays, and I hope you will enjoy it too.
No matter how you are celebrating the season, have a wonderful time with your dear ones and remember the things that are truly important in life.

At the core, it is about peace, love, hope, and joy. And let's add to this inclusiveness, understanding, and harmony. The world needs all of these more than ever right now. Each one of us can make a difference when our heart is in the right place and we let it shine!

So, let's fill-up our hearts with loving and peaceful thoughts and then spread them everywhere we go. Let us create a collective body of joy and harmony that touches every corner of the world!   
May this season bring you health, peace, and happiness.

Ina Mohan
Founder and President of Health, Healing & Happiness LLC

Ukrainian Christmas Caroling


Ukrainian Christmas Traditions

Ukrainians celebrate Christmas according to different calendars: Gregorian (December 25) and Julian ( January 07). Most Ukrainians prefer January. Traditionally, people fast before Christmas for up to 40 days with a diet that is almost vegan, as meat, dairy, eggs are not allowed. The fast allows all fruits, vegetables, legumes, porridges, mushrooms and some fish.

Christmas Eve on January 06 is called Holy Evening – Sviata Vecheria. It is traditionally celebrated with 12 lean fasting meals on the table, based on the number of Jesus’ apostles. The main decoration in the house is didukh, a sheaf of wheat stalks symbolizing the spirit of the ancestors, wealth and prosperity. Passed-on family members are believed to return on the holy days to spend time with their family.

As soon as the first star is visible in the sky of the Holy Evening, the Christmas festivities begin.

Christmas Caroling is a joyful tradition in Ukraine. Families often sing together around the table. Boys and girls prepare special songs and poems, and then go from home to home with big colorful stars in their hands to entertain their neighbors in exchange for sweets and coins.


The 12 sacred dishes of the Sviata Vecheria

The 12 traditional dishes of the Ukrainian Christmas meal symbolize the last of the fasting meals on January 06, the evening on which this meal is enjoyed. As you can tell below, they are traditionally almost all vegan, with the exception of fish and some eggs. Let’s take a closer look at these delicious dishes. Click on the name of each for the recipes. We updated those that had eggs with vegan-friendly ones.

  1. Kutia – a sweet porridge made of wheat, poppyseeds, honey, walnuts and raisins. This dish starts the meal and is the most important part.
  2. Uzvar – a dried fruit drinking compote from apples and pears that can be enjoyed after the kutia with the other dishes
  3. Pea Stew– a stew from green pea, carrot, potato and marrow squash. This can also be made with peas and sauerkraut
  4. Kapusniak – sour cabbage soup with carrot, potato and millet. This is teh second-most popular soup in Ukraine after Borsch
  5. Borsch – a lighter version of the popular beetroot soup with cabbage and kidney beans. This soup originated in Ukraine.
  6. Holubtsi – cabbage rolls with mushrooms, rice and tomato sauce.
  7. Varenyky – delightful potato dumplings served with roasted onions
  8. Fish – often marinated herring with carrot and onion
  9. Deruny – potato pancakes with onions. We used a non-traditional recipe to keep it vegan.
  10. Pyrizhky – handpies made with buckwheat. We used a non-traditional recipe to keep it vegan.
  11. Pampushky – Ukrainian small bread with garlic, traditionally eaten with borsch
  12. Pidpenky - mushrooms and gravy also belongs on the Christmas table, served with the main dishes
SViata Vecheria

As you can see, potatoes and mushrooms are centric to this wonderful Christmas meal, which will be a delight for every vegan too! I can’t wait to try some of these dishes myself.
During these holidays I’m keeping Ukraine very close to my heart. I hope that families across the country will be able to celebrate Christmas together and that there will be hope on the horizon when the evening star appears on Holy Evening!


Holiday Traditions in Germany

I was born and raised in Germany and remember many Christmas celebrations fondly. We were a small family of three - just mom, dad, and me. Our Christmas Eves every December 24th were spent eating a nice long dinner, followed by unwrapping gifts under the Christmas tree, music and dancing, story telling, and steaming mulled wine or a good bottle of wine (once I was of drinking age).  Our Christmas at home was not exactly a traditional Christmas, which gladly meant that we ate much less meat than it’s traditionally the case.

We did have a real Christmas Tree in our home for many years and I loved decorating it! Parents usually decorate the tree secretly, but I always enjoyed spending a whole day helping my mom with it.

In Germany, Christmas celebrations begin with Advent, which is Latin for “coming”, in this case the coming of Christ. It is the period of four weeks and  four Sundays before Christmas Eve. The first Advent Sunday is when we light the first of four Advent candles. With every additional Sunday, another candle is lit until all four are burning the Sunday before Christmas. More orthodox Christians may fast during Advent, or at least ditch meat and dairy to cleanse body and spirit.

advent candles


My favorite traditional is the Advent Calendar and I always get starry eyes when I spot a traditional one in the US. The Advent Calendar can be anything that holds 24 doors or small boxes painted with the numbers 1 - 24. Behind each door is a small goodie that you can discover on each of the December days leading up to Christmas. When I was young, mine was always a wall calendar filled with chocolate. Every day I would eagerly open one little window and enjoy the sweet price hidden behind it.

advent calendar


While waiting for Christmas Eve, German kids put out their shoes in the night to December 6th, where they hope that St. Nikolaus will stop by and bring some sweets and candy.

There are three days of Christmas in Germany. We have Christmas Eve on December 24, when we exchange gifts, the First Christmas Day on December 25, when we visit family members that can’t be with us, and a Second Christmas Day on December 26, which is often used to just relax or visit more far-flung family. This means 2 ½ days when literally all of the shops in Germany used to be closed!
During the entire holiday season we would visit the wonderful Christmas Markets that spring up in every major German city. We spent long hours at these beautifully lit winter markets with rows of wooden stalls offering foods, drinks, sweets, arts and crafts, especially Christmas tree ornaments. These are all mini-Christmas wonderlands with smells, sounds and sights that put you into the right holiday spirit. On those days I always took public transport in the German cities where I lived, because I wanted to have mulled wine to keep me warm. A steaming cup of mulled wine (Gluehwein) or hot toddy (Grog) is very strong, so driving myself would have been ill-advised.

German Christmas Market


The Christmas Stollen in Germany is a must! This is a fruit bread of nuts, spices, and dried or candied fruit, coated with powdered sugar or icing sugar, and sometimes marzipan. It is a traditional German bread eaten during the Christmas season, when it is called Weihnachtsstollen.
This stollen recipe by Vegan Heaven is rich and delightful – with the marzipan that gives it an extra festive touch!


Fun New Year Customs in European Countries

Muk and I used to visit a different European city for New Year’s Eve for a few years right after we spent Christmas with the family in Berlin. While the following countries did not all make our travel list, their New Year’s Eve customs are fun and interesting, so I hope they will put a smile on your face too!


Eat uva and drink cava! We spent one New Year’s Eve in Madrid at the Puerta del Sol. At midnight, we ate 12 grapes (doce uvas) with each stroke of the clock tower bell. This is a symbol of bringing good luck and it’s not as easy as it sounds! We washed down the grapes with a bottle of delicious Spanish sparkling wine (cava) while celebrating with the happy masses on the main plaza in Madrid. There was a lot of hugging and kissing, and in good madrileños fashion, we partied for many more hours.


Wear red underwear and eat lentils! All over Italy you will find stores selling red underwear, that is worn on New Year’s Eve to bring good luck. It has to be new, so wait until the special day to sport your new garments. Another good luck tradition is eating lentils at the stroke of midnight – as much as you can! Each lentil symbolizes a penny, so the more you eat, the more money you will have.  And sometimes in Italy, old things are thrown out of the window on New Year’s Eve, so beware of your footing!


Smash your unwanted plates at your friends’ doors! The Danes are very active on New Year’s Eve: they gather unwanted or broken dishes and throw them at the doors of best friends and family members, to show them all the affections they feel for them. The more broken dishes someone has at their door the next day, the more friends and good luck for the new year will the have. Another Danish tradition is to jump into the new year off a chair or sofa, as it is believed to bring good luck.


Hang and smash pomegranates and onions! The Greeks have a tradition to hang a pomegranate above their door throughout Christmas and then smash it on the floor (or at the door) on New Year’s Eve at midnight. The more seeds splatter out of the pomegranate, the luckier the year will be.  A big sea onion (skeletoura) is often hung over the door of Greek homes and taken down at midnight on New Year’s Eve. The onion is kept in the house to bring longevity, health and luck.


Let’s have a Hogmanay party! This Scottish tradition is a party that starts on December 30 and ends on New Year’s Day. While the exact style varies across Scotland, “first footing” is a big one, which means being the first to visit family or friends with a gift in hand after midnight on New Year’s Eve. It helps being brunette, as tradition has it that a dark-haired visitor bearing gifts on that day brings good luck! This harkens back to the time when mostly blond Vikings with axes and swords were very unwelcome… You can also see parades where the locals follow drummers and bagpipers with lit torches around town.


Melt some lead to predict the future! This is called Bleigiessen and is also done in Germany and Finland. I have done it many times as a child on New Year’s Eve: We melted some lead and then poured it into cold water. Depending on the shape the metal develops, we were divining our future for the year - or so we believed! For example: if a ball is forming it means luck will roll our way, and a star would brings happiness. Nowadays kits with tin figurines are sold for this purpose.


Eat as many dishes as possible! While eating a feast for New Year’s Eve is a worldwide tradition, the Estonians attach another meaning to eating to their hearts’ content. Each dish they eat of the 7,9 or 12 offered on this special day symbolizes the strength of how many men they will have in the new year. These are lucky numbers in Estonia and the more you eat, the luckier you will be!


Whatever tradition you follow or choose to introduce this New Year’s Eve, we hope that it will bring you the best of luck and everything you wish for yourself and your loved ones!