Ukrainians celebrating first Christmas in the UK hope for peace in the new year

Kateryna Chebizhak, 34, who works as a telephone interpreter, and her seven-year-old son Kolya, Credit: Kateryna Chebizhak

Ukrainians celebrating their first Christmases in the UK are hoping for peace in 2023, as the first anniversary of Russia's invasion draws closer.

Some who have taken refuge in the UK have been busy writing letters to Santa Claus and planning out traditional dishes they plan to make on the big day, as they tell of hopes of being reunited with their loved ones back home in the new year.

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.

“We have friends here that live just next door and we will meet to celebrate”, Ms Chebizhak said.

Kateryna Chebizhak, 34, who came to the UK in April after fleeing Kyiv with her seven-year old son Kolya Credit: Montana Gerry/Beam

“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.

“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 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.”

Kateryna with son Kolya. Credit: Kateryna Chebizhak

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.”

(Back row from left to right) Vasyl, Olha and Taras Anna, Volodymyr and Mia. Credit: Supplied

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 his year.

“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, said.

She said that the group are planning to go to Church together on December 25, 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.

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“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.”