Ukraine: Christmas at wartime

22 Dec 2022

People in Kharkiv and Ichnya, Ukraine, are struggling with the effects of war. Under challenging circumstances, they prepare for Christmas. Bishop Pavlo Shvarts reminds people to look towards the light.


Ukraine – Christmas preparations

Christmas preparations by candle light in Kharkiv. Photo: Pavlo Shvarts, GELCU 

Candles, generators, and a message of hope 

(LWI) - The traditional Christmas arrangements in the Lutheran church in Kharkiv were crafted by candlelight this year. "Ten missiles on electric infrastructure in Kharkiv in a single day," Bishop Pavlo Shvarts of the German Evangelical Lutheran Church of Ukraine (GELCU) noted on social media on 17 December 2022. "Thanks to our electricians and the air defense, light, and some heating returned to our homes in the evening. We are still waiting for the water supply to come back." At the same time, he thanked Diakonia Polska (Diakonia Kościoła Ewangelicko-Augsburskiego w RP - Diakonia Polska) of the Evangelical Church of the Augsburg Confession in Poland (ECACP) for a gift of candles. "They remind us of the hope we have in our Lord this winter," he said. 

Gifts of light are precious these days in Ukraine. Be it reflecting bracelets for children so they are visible in the dark, a donation by Polish Lutherans, or candles – or generators and other equipment for heating points. The cold winter brings many hardships, but also signs of solidarity and care.  

Despite the ongoing attacks, Christians have come together to celebrate Advent, Bishop Shvarts shares. "We have regular Sunday services in our 15 congregations, including the one in Berdiansk. Two more congregations hold regular prayer meetings." Only one congregation in the territory under the temporary military control of the Russian Federation isn't active at the moment. The Lutheran Church will celebrate Christmas on 25 December as usual, Shvarts adds: "It is during times like these that we need light, warmth, and hope to encourage our hearts." 

It is during times like these that we need light, warmth, and hope to encourage our hearts.

– Bishop Pavlo SHVARTS, German Evangelical Lutheran Church of Ukraine

Ukraine: Ichnya - Sergey

Sergey, who also works at Ichnya school, is preparing for power outages. His parents have a wood stove. Photo: LWF/B. Pachuta

The greatest gift: warmth 

The mood is a bit more solemn in the Chernihiv region, where the LWF renovates schools and supports the community with large generators. "This Christmas will be different than before. No presents, no Christmas tree, and no Christmas mood. This day will pass like any other," says Sergey, who works at a school in Ichnya, where the Government of Ukraine regained control in June.  

The Lutheran World Federation (LWF) supports Ichnya and another community in rebuilding infrastructure. On a visit at the end of November, LWF Ukraine Team Leader Kavita Shukla and Coordination and Communication Officer Bartosz Pachuta evaluated projects. They met residents to talk about their needs during the cold season. LWF will support the communities with large generators for running their water and sewage systems during power outages. 

"They all say that the war has dampened the spirit of what is usually a festive season," Pachuta says. In previous years, friends and family would come to Sergey's house, and about 20 people would gather around the Christmas table. Usually, this time of the year, like Christians around the world, Sergey would buy a Christmas tree and plan the Christmas dinner to be celebrated on the Orthodox Christmas in January.

Ukraine: Ichnya – Oleg

Oleg, staff from Ichnya school, will celebrate Christmas for his children’s sake. Photo: LWF/B. Pachuta 

Stocking up on wood and food 

This year is different: many friends have sought safety in other countries, and Sergey is most concerned about finding a generator for his home. The prices have tripled, and he wants to have heating in case the frequent rocket attacks on the power stations leave him without electricity. Moreover, it is cold in Ichnya, and even though there is little snow, temperatures at night drop to ten degrees below zero.  

The most frequent topics for many people in Ukraine these days are power, heating, and a house to live in. Sergey counts himself lucky as his home is intact, and if there is no more gas for heating, he can move to his parents, who have a wood stove. People stockpile wood and bread; children do their homework with kerosene lamps or candlelight. For families, power outages are the hardest. Still, Lesia, a homemaker from Ichnya, counts her blessings: "As long as my children are fine and safe, I will be fine as well. They are everything to me." 


Ukraine - Christmas ornaments

Child with her handccrafted Christmas arrangement in Kharkiv. The church received a large donation of Christmas candles from the Polish Diakonia. Photo: Pavlo Shvarts, GELCU

Thinking about others 

In almost every conversation, Pachuta notes, people mention that they do not worry about themselves but someone else. People talk about husbands and sons affected by the conflict, people in cities under attack, and elderly and vulnerable family members. "Despite the whole situation, they are trying to stay positive. However, when you dig deeper, you understand how hard it is for them and how tired they are," he says.  

"There is no Christmas mood, and there will be none," Oleg, another staff from the school in Ichnya, states. Still, he will make an effort to celebrate with his family. "We will do it for the children," he says. "They need Christmas to forget about the war for a while." 

Bishop Shvarts in Kharkiv recalls the message of hope on Christmas, not just for the children. "These different traditions give the pre-Christmas period a special joy," he says. "But for a believer, it is also an opportunity to understand and probably feel that the Lord is near. Despite everything that is happening around us - he is near." 

"Our Christmas traditions, or even a lit candle, remind us of this important truth." 

LWF/B. Pachuta, C. Kästner-Meyer