A Christmas season without its traditional glow in Ukraine

Relatives and supporters of captured Ukrainian servicemen of the Azov regiment, captured during the siege of the port city of Mariupol, rally during the performence, “Azov Regiment: Christmas in captivity”, in St. Sophia Square in Kyiv on December 24, 2022.

Relatives and supporters of captured Ukrainian servicemen of the Azov regiment, captured during the siege of the port city of Mariupol, rally during the performence, “Azov Regiment: Christmas in captivity”, in St. Sophia Square in Kyiv on December 24, 2022.
| Photo Credit: AFP

Just a year ago, Sophia Square in Kyiv was all about the big Christmas tree and thousands of lights spreading over the plaza. These final days of 2022, in the middle of a war that has ravaged the country for 10 months, a more modest tree stands there, its blue and yellow lights barely breaking the gloom of the square that is otherwise dark apart from the headlights of cars.

In recent months, Russia has been targeting the energy infrastructure, aiming to cut electricity and heating to Ukrainians, as the freezing winter advances. And although the Ukraine government tries to move as fast as it can, it’s been practically impossible to restore power for every single person in the country, including the more than 3 million residents of the capital.

There are days when streets in Kyiv’s downtown have light, but the authorities have imposed some restrictions and scheduled power cuts, meaning that there’s no traditional gleaming city during the Christmas season.

But even in these gloomy moments, some people have decided to show their determination and rescue whatever they can these holidays — like the Christmas tree, still standing proud even if it doesn’t have the brightness of recent years.

A priest Oleksandr of Orthodox Church of Ukraine conducts the Christmas service at a positions of servicemen of the Ukrainian National Guard, amid Russia’s attack on Ukraine, in Kharkiv region of Ukraine on December 24, 2022.

A priest Oleksandr of Orthodox Church of Ukraine conducts the Christmas service at a positions of servicemen of the Ukrainian National Guard, amid Russia’s attack on Ukraine, in Kharkiv region of Ukraine on December 24, 2022.
| Photo Credit:
Reuters

Kyiv’s Mayor, Vitali Klitschko, announced the installation of the Christmas tree, saying it was going to be named the “Tree of Invincibility.” “We decided that we wouldn’t let Russia steal the celebration of Christmas and New Year from our children,” he said. The name, he added, was “because we Ukrainians cannot be broken.”

The “Tree of Invincibility” was inaugurated on December 19, the same day that Russia launched a drone attack against Kyiv, but damaged only a power plant that didn’t caused a massive blackout in the city.

Unlike previous years, when along with the tens of thousands of bulbs, Sophia Square was full of music and cheerful people, now the only noise on the plaza is the sound of a generator powering the lights of the 12-meter (40 foot) tree. On top of it, there is no star of Bethlehem’s but instead a trident, Ukraine’s symbol.

In stark contrast, in the Russian-occupied city of Luhansk, a large Christmas tree has been erected and on Friday evening people came out to admire its bright lights and watch entertainment, including dancers dressed in the colors of the Russian flag.

A priest Oleksandr of Orthodox Church of Ukraine conducts the Christmas service at a positions of servicemen of the Ukrainian National Guard, amid Russia’s attack on Ukraine, in Kharkiv region of Ukraine on December 24, 2022.

A priest Oleksandr of Orthodox Church of Ukraine conducts the Christmas service at a positions of servicemen of the Ukrainian National Guard, amid Russia’s attack on Ukraine, in Kharkiv region of Ukraine on December 24, 2022.
| Photo Credit:
Reuters

Before Kyiv’s government decided to install its tree, there was some debate about whether it was appropriate in a year that brought so many tragedies and horrors. Similar discussions happened all across the country, and some regions decided not have trees.

But now, some people do like the initiative.

“We are grateful that we can see at least something in such times,” said Oleh Skakun, 56, during the unveiling of the tree on Monday.

He said that every December 19, his wife’s birthday, they used to go to see the Christmas tree in the southern city of Kherson, not far from their home. Not this year, because their house, on the left bank of the Dnieper river, is occupied by Russian forces, and they had to flee in August to Kyiv.

But despite their sadness, Skakun said that they wanted to keep the tradition of visiting a Christmas tree.

Ukrainian servicemen with the Dnipro-1 Special Tasks Patrol Police regiment Raphael Karapitian 45 and Roman Kapinus 39, walks with with weapons beside a decorated Christmas tree in the trenches on the front line, as Russia’s attack on Ukraine continues, on Christmas Eve in Bakhmut, Ukraine on December 24, 2022.

Ukrainian servicemen with the Dnipro-1 Special Tasks Patrol Police regiment Raphael Karapitian 45 and Roman Kapinus 39, walks with with weapons beside a decorated Christmas tree in the trenches on the front line, as Russia’s attack on Ukraine continues, on Christmas Eve in Bakhmut, Ukraine on December 24, 2022.
| Photo Credit:
Reuters

“Twenty Russians live in my house now; they tortured people, they tortured my son,” said Larysa Skakun, 57. “But we came here to cheer up a bit, to see the people, the celebration”, she added in tears.

Among other cities that also decided to install a Christmas tree is Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city that for months was on the edges of the front line and constantly attacked by Russian missiles. There, instead of placing it on a square, it has been erected inside the main subway station.

But for some Ukrainians, it’s hard to celebrate anything this Christmas.

Anna Holovina, 27, came to Sophia Square to see the tree, but said that she keeps thinking of her hometown in the Luhansk region, occupied by Russian forces since 2014.

“I feel sadness. I feel pain. I don’t feel the holiday at all,” she said. “My family is in Kyiv, but my hometown has been occupied for the eighth year now.”

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