Christmas in Ukraine: Flickering Lights, Patriotic Trees and Hope for Peace

KYIV, Ukraine — Hundreds of missiles and drones aimed at Ukraine’s energy infrastructure have left millions of people without power — and dozens of cities without Christmas lights.

It was no accident that the wave of attacks came before the holidays and in the darkest and coldest time of year, said Denys Shmyhal, Ukraine’s prime minister.

“It is important for the Russians,” he said, “that Christmas and New Year’s Eve pass in darkness in Ukraine.”

With that in mind, some Ukrainian cities decided to be inventive with their Christmas decorations — finding ways to win back the season while not wasting precious electricity or disappointing children as holiday lights blink out during the attacks.

In the usually serene square of St. Sophia Cathedral in Kyiv, the capital, the authorities put up what they called the Christmas Tree of Invincibility. It was decorated with papier-mâché white doves and a strip of blue and yellow lights — the colors of the Ukrainian flag — powered by a diesel generator.

They were fitting decorations for a city where the sound of generators is now heard more than the rumble of traffic. The Tree of Invincibility can be heard before it can be seen.

“The war is horrible, but we should not leave our children without a holiday,” said Daria Pervaya, 18, a college student, who had to speak loudly to be heard above the tree’s generator. “I do not have a holiday mood this year at all,” she added. “I am waiting for my boyfriend, who is fighting.”

Ukraine celebrates Christmas as a national holiday on Dec. 25 — for churches observing the religious holiday on the Western calendar, like the Catholics in western Ukraine — and on Jan. 7, for churches observing the Eastern Orthodox religious holiday.

This year, Christmas decorations are hardly visible in Ukrainian cities, but when they are displayed, they almost always have a patriotic touch. People crave celebrating the holiday, but say it can be justified only with Ukraine in mind.

Blue and yellow ribbons are used to create flags, children’s letters to soldiers are put on display and Christmas bunnies now hold blue and yellow hearts.

Valeriy Bozhenko, who is working as Santa Claus this season at Kyiv’s central railway station, said children most often ask him “for peace,” with toys usually coming in second.

The Christmas tree in Ivano-Frankivsk, a city in western Ukraine, is a metal frame decorated with angels, patriotic slogans and the municipal emblems of towns retaken from the Russians by the Ukrainian Army.

The city of Kropyvnytsky, in central Ukraine, put up 12 small Christmas trees in support of the towns and cities that have suffered the most in the war, among them the seaport city of Mariupol, which was besieged and mostly destroyed, and Bucha, a suburb of Kyiv that was the site of multiple war crimes.

A decoration with 12 angels in Lutsk, in the northwest, symbolizes the souls of people who died in the war.

In Mykolaiv, a hard-hit city in southern Ukraine, a long-existing statue of St. Nicholas was covered with sandbags for protection, as with most statues in Ukrainian cities. For the Christmas season, the local administration placed holiday lights on top of the sand bags and green camouflage netting that protected the statue.

Kharkiv’s City Council is displaying the traditional municipal Christmas tree not on the central square, but underground, in a subway station, where people huddle for protection during artillery strikes. The mayor said the city would keep this tradition from now on, even after the war.

In Khmelnytskyi, in central Ukraine, a Christmas tree decorated with blue and yellow Ukrainian flags was set on top of debris from a Russian S-300 missile.

In Kyiv, the City Council also defied the Russian blackouts by lighting one of the city’s largest ever menorah candles on the central square, known as the Maidan.

Parents in the capital can also bring their children to see not only the Christmas Tree of Invincibility, but a tree that is decorated with toys, snowflakes and lights that sparkle — but only if someone pedals its bicycle generator.

“War? Blackout? No Christmas tree?” Oleksandr Kamyshin, the director of Ukraine’s national railway company, wrote on Twitter of the pedal-powered tree. “You never guess what we invented.”

A steady stream of people stop by with their children to pedal and light up the Christmas tree.

Ramil Yaremenko, a 30-year-old courier, said, “To be honest, I do not want anything for Christmas, as I understand how hard it is for our soldiers now.”

But he brought his children to the pedal-powered tree. They ran about, hopping on and off the bicycle, trying to light it.

“I am happy for my children, though,” he said, adding, “It’s important that the war does not steal childhood.”

A 9-year-old boy named Myroslav found it hard at first to pedal fast enough to light the tree. His godfather, Oleksandr Siryk, stood nearby, photographing him and giving advice. They both became excited when it finally worked and the tree lit up brilliantly white.

“It is not a real holiday time in our country now; there is no Christmas in my soul,” Mr. Siryk said. “But children still need it.”

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