Displaced Ukrainians mark sombre Orthodox Christmas far from war-torn home

For Ukrainians spending their first holiday season away from home, this year's Orthodox Christmas celebrations have been muted, focused on prayers that the war in their homeland comes to an end.

Holiday spirits dim as Russian war drags on

A woman looks outside a window beside a Christmas tree.
Olga Melnyk, whose good friend was recently killed in Ukraine, says holidays are difficult to celebrate this year. (Chelsea Kemp/CBC)

For Ukrainians spending their first holiday season away from home, this year's Orthodox Christmas celebrations have been muted, focused on prayers that the war in their homeland comes to an end.

Olga Melnyk arrived in Brandon, Man. with her husband Vasil and children Dentil, 12, and Victoria, 8, in August from western Ukraine. This year marked their first holiday season outside of Ukraine, she said, and it was a strange and difficult time.

She says marking the holidays in Canada has been bittersweet.

"It's a family holiday in Ukraine. We celebrate with family and close friends, but…all Ukrainians here [are] our family now," Melnyk said. "We don't feel this holiday…because of war. We try to be positive and try to be happy here. It's our new life."

A woman sits on a couch with her two children in front of a Christmas tree.
Olga Melnyk and her children Victoria, 8, left, and Dentil, 12, decorated their new home to celebrate Orthodox Christmas, all the while missing friends and family who didn't leave Ukraine. (Chelsea Kemp/CBC)

On Friday, Melnyk cooked a seven-course meal to celebrate Orthodox Christmas and hosted a gathering with other Ukrainians Saturday in the southwest Manitoban community.  Her family's apartment was decorated with festive ornaments to try and capture a special holiday feeling for her kids.

Melnyk and her husband's parents are still in Ukraine, as are many of their friends.

This Christmas is very sad because she has friends who have been killed in the war, she said, including a good friend three days ago. Melnyk said all Ukrainians share the heartbreak of having loved ones die in the war, making the 2023 Orthodox Christmas hard to celebrate.

 "We pray for victory and it was our wish by 40 million people. It's our victory."

Holiday feelings are not possible during the war

Natalia Kohanova and her teenage son Mykhailo Kohanov arrived in Manitoba's second biggest city, in mid-June — escaping the Russian invasion that devastated their home city of Irpin.

Their new home has been modestly decorated with Christmas items all donated by the community and friends.

"All decorations on our Christmas tree — it's all like presents from Canadians. They think about us, they support us and every time think about what we need," Kohanova said. "It's so beautiful for us."

They share the home with three other displaced Ukrainians — 19-year-old student Kateryna Sofishchenko, Hanna Prykhodko and her eight-year-old son Illia.

A woman and her teenage son sit in front of a Christmas tree.
Natalia Kohanova, left, and her son Mykhailo Kohanov mark Orthodox Christmas in Brandon, Man., on Friday. They arrived in Canada in June, as the war in Ukraine devastated their hometown of Irpin. (Chelsea Kemp/CBC)

In Ukraine, Kohanova and her family usually celebrate both Christmas in December and Orthodox Christmas on Jan. 7. But this year they say it is hard to find reasons to feel festive.

"We cannot ... celebrate because my parents and [Mykhailo's] grandma and grandfather right now are in Ukraine," she said. 

A group of five people sit and stand in a kitchen.
From left to right, Kateryna Sofishchenko, Kohanova, Kohanov, Hanna Prykhodko and her son Illia, 8, stand in the kitchen of their shared home. The displaced Ukrainians are marking their first holiday season away from home. (Chelsea Kemp/CBC)

"We think about our family," she said. "I know that [my] parents are shot at every day, and we work so as not to think about it."

She's spent her holidays thinking about the war, praying and hoping that the people she loves stay safe.

Sofishchenko, who hails from Kyiv, came to Brandon in August, as late in the year as possible because she wanted to be with her parents, who stayed behind. She's now attending Assiniboine Community College.

Her family doesn't celebrate Orthodox Christmas or Christmas, she said, but always hosts a big feast celebrating New Year's with her grandparents; a highlight of which would be a special traditional dish, kutia, typically served at the start of Orthodox Christmas's 12-course meals.

Sofishchenko and her housemates had a modest holiday celebration with a smaller meal. They say it can be difficult to plan because it's tiring adjusting to life in Canada, working and school.

A woman sits at a table with her hands clasped.
Sofishchenko sits at her living room table. Her parents are still in Ukraine. (Chelsea Kemp/CBC)

She agrees it would feel strange getting too festive because of the challenging year and ongoing war.

"I'm not really in the Christmas spirit," Sofishchenko said. "When I think about home it's quite sad." 

Not being at home for the holidays has been a lonely experience.

Before coming to Canada Sofishchenko spent months in Denmark and Germany, and at times, home has felt like a distant memory. She says, even if she was home, she knows the holiday spirit would be dimmed because of ongoing Russian aggression.

"It would still be pretty stressful, you know all this rocket launches and stuff like that," she said.

"It's not home home, because home is a place where you're safe."

The Ukrainian-Canadian Congress estimates around 11,000 Ukrainians have settled in Manitoba under emergency travel measures introduced last year. More than 70 have settled in Brandon with help from the Tryzub, a branch of the congress that mainly helps new arrivals.

Kohanova praises Tryzub for its community support and the many events and fundraisers it has held to benefit Ukraine. She says those events are important because Tryzub is helping bring the community together and ensuring people feel connected even though they are outside Ukraine.

"It's great people because they understand what we're feeling and so much help to us," Kohanova said.


Chelsea Kemp

Brandon Reporter

Chelsea Kemp is a multimedia journalist with CBC Manitoba. She is based in CBC's bureau in Brandon, covering stories focused on rural Manitoba. Share your story ideas, tips and feedback with