22 Dec 2022

Ukrainians in NZ keen to celebrate Christmas despite war back home

From Morning Report, 8:26 am on 22 December 2022
Bakhmut under daily Russian shelling, still daily life goes on despite near by Russian Army. Frontline is 2km from city in south direction. Destroyed house due to shelling, east of the city. Bakhmut, on December 18, 2022.

Bakhmut has been devastated by months of Russian bombardment. Photo: Anadolu Agency via AFP

It's been 10 months since Russia invaded Ukraine in what has become a bloody and brutal war.

Ukrainians in New Zealand are still trying to find some festive cheer and said not even war can rob them of Christmas.

A classic Christmas for Olya Tolpyhina involves waiting for the first star to come up on Christmas Eve, followed by a massive feast.

"I know that all ladies cook 12 meals, you need to have 12 meals, I don't know why but you have to have abundance."

This year the Ukrainian-New Zealander will have to celebrate as war rages on in her home country.

Tolpyhina said they'll continue to sing carols, and cook things like a kutia, which her mother insists is mandatory at the dining table.

"You soak wheat overnight, and you add nuts, some raisins or dried fruit, honey - that's a traditional thing we have to have."

A bowl of grains in front of a jar filled with honey. A Christmas tree is in the background.

Kutya. Christmas porridge made of wheat grains, poppy seed, nuts, raisins and honey. Christmas kutia. Ukrainian cuisine. Photo: Timolina/123rf

Sixty-eight-year-old Mila Nadutoba fled the capital Kyiv shortly after the war broke out.

She's now in Dunedin with her daughter, but it's been an arduous and traumatic journey getting here, with chaos at the train stations, a heart attack scare in Lviv, and six months spent in limbo waiting for her visa.

She's sad not to be spending Christmas in her hometown of Kyiv, where she has fond memories.

"You know, there a lot of religious people in Ukraine, a lot of devotees and festive people. That's why they will celebrate, they'll have a fur tree, a Christmas tree."

That devotion is clear in Tolpyhina's hometown too, near Ukraine's border with Romania.

Even as missiles are fired above ground, the holiday spirit remains alive below ground.

"They may do a Christmas tree in the subway, maybe some decorations. Everybody worries the kids won't have normal lives, so they want to give them the feeling you can have Christmas, and so they can get a little bit of magic."

Sofia Beadle is on the ground for New Zealand aid organisation ReliefAid, providing support to thousands of people.

She's also witnessed some of that white Christmas magic and the sense of communion.

"There's been snow on the ground the past few weeks and it's been great to see children out sledding on hills and the streets.

"I think there's a huge community spirit here - the help people give their neighbours and rebuilding in these tough conflict conditions," she said.

 Nadutoba summed up what most Ukrainians are wishing for this Christmas.

 "Well, I would like to be at home in Kyiv, and I would like the war to stop."