Ukrainians celebrating first Christmases in UK hope for peace in 2023

A seven-year-old Ukrainian spending his first Christmas in the UK hopes his letters to Santa will be answered.
A seven-year-old Ukrainian spending his first Christmas in the UK hopes his letters to Santa will be answered.

Ukrainians celebrating their first Christmases in the UK have been busy writing letters to Santa Claus and planning out traditional dishes they plan to make on the big day, amid hopes for peace and being reunited with their loved ones back home in 2023.

Despite usually celebrating Christmas on January 7 – as determined by the Orthodox Church – Kateryna Chebizhak, 34, who works as a telephone interpreter, and her seven-year-old son Kolya, are planning on spending December 25 with friends who live near them in Enfield, North London.

Russian invasion of Ukraine
Kateryna Chebizhak, 34, who came to the UK in April after fleeing Kyiv with her seven-year old son Kolya (Montana Gerry/Beam)

“We have friends here that live just next door and we will meet to celebrate”, Ms Chebizhak told the PA news agency.

“I have some presents for Kolya and we will have a nice walk, we might do some arts and crafts and play Uno.”

The pair came to the UK in April after fleeing Kyiv, following short stays in Poland and Germany.

She added that when she told her son that in the UK children usually receive Christmas presents on December 25, he began making a list.

“Usually in Ukraine, we just get presents under the Christmas Tree in the New Year, but [in the UK] it works differently”, she said.

“Now’s he waiting for his two presents and he’s really excited.

“As it is the school holidays, he has been writing letters to Santa Claus.”

This time of the year is also tainted with sadness since Ms Chebizhak would usually spend Christmas with her family back in Ukraine, of which the exact location details cannot be mentioned for safety reasons.

“Usually we have traditions where my mum (Tetiana) will always make 12 dishes which symbolise the 12 months of the year and we would make a wish on Christmas Eve and go to bed and it should come true”, she said.

Ms Chebizhak added that her parents are okay, but that her mother did not put up a Christmas tree due to the ongoing war.

“My sister Anna also used to live not too far from them and she also left to go to Greece with her two children, so they are alone and she doesn’t have any grandchildren nearby”, she added.

“My mum and dad might sit down together and watch some movies or listen to the national anthem of Ukraine and we’ll have a call, but they are coping and doing great despite it not being a good situation.”

Woman with her son in the snow
Kateryna Chebizhak with her seven-year-old son Kolya (Kateryna Chebizhak)

As the pair look forward to 2023, Ms Chebizhak said she “dreams of peace in our country”.

“We really hope the war’s over and we can return to see Kolya’s dad as he misses him very much and is still in the Vinnytska region in Ukraine.

Ms Chebizhak also has plans to do an interpretation and translation course to fulfil her dream of becoming a fully qualified interpreter, thanks to public donations made through a crowdfunder set up by platform Beam, which is supporting Ukrainian refugees into jobs and homes.

“We are so thankful for all the kindness and support, which means I moved into my own place in November and can do my interpretation course next year”, she said.

“Kolya is also looking forward to continuing with school and his football classes.

“We’re just trying to live a normal life.”

Olha Komarnytska who lives in Birmingham with her children – Mia, 15, and Volodymyr, 13 – are also set to experience their first Christmas in the UK, alongside their host family.

They arrived in the UK from western Ukraine in May of this year.

(Back row from left to right) Vasyl, Olha and Taras (front row left to right) Anna, Volodymyr and Mia (Olha Komarnytska)

“We usually celebrate Christmas in January but a think of lot of Ukrainians will celebrate Christmas in December this year because Russians celebrate Christmas in January and it’s not very good for us because we are fighting with Russia”,  Ms Komarnytska, a 42-year-old cleaner told PA.

She said that on December 25, the group are to go to Church together, followed by a Christmas dinner, which will include traditional British and Ukrainian food staples.

“I plan to make cabbage with rice, meat carrot and onions and a Ukrainian salad with potato, carrot, meat, onions and cucumber,” she added.

The family have already gotten into the Christmas spirit by attending a party hosted by Centrala, an art space in Birmingham dedicated to promoting Central and Eastern European art and culture,  on December 19 – Saint Nicholas Day.

“It was amazing and all the children there were very happy – they received a lot of presents and they saw Santa and heard Ukrainian music”, she said.

“My son was sadly not at the party as he was ill but my daughter was really happy when she went.”

Several people from the family will be absent from the dinner – Mrs Komarnytska’s husband Taras, her mother and father, Anna and Vasyl and brothers Dmytro and Vasyl.

“We’re so sad because we can’t be with our family because my husband stayed in Ukraine and my mum, dad and brothers all stayed in Ukraine and we can’t celebrate Christmas with them”, she said,

“It’s not good, we are not happy – but the situation is very bad because of the war happening in Ukraine and there is a bad situation with electricity where many don’t have any.”

As for her hopes for 2023, Mrs Komarnytska said she will be “happy if I am in Ukraine”.

“I want to come back to my family and spend time with my family.

“It’s very important for me because my children miss their dad, grandma and grandpapa and their friends.

“I think next Christmas we will celebrate in Ukraine, but we will always remember how lovely and helpful those in the UK have been to Ukrainians.”