January 18: “Hungry Kutya” or Second Holy Night: traditions and customs


Culture, Ukraine

The long winter celebrations are slowly coming to an end in Ukraine. On the eve of Epiphany – January 18 – Ukrainians celebrate “Holodna Kutya” (Hungry Kutya) or Second Holy Night. The faithful fast all day and families sit down to dinner when the first evening star appears in the heavens. Lenten dishes are served – grilled fish, varenyky with cabbage, buckwheat pancakes, stewed fruit and kutya.


After dinner, children drive the kutya symbolically away from the house. They run outside, beat a chosen corner of their home with long sticks and chant rhymes honouring kutya and the didukh.

As night falls, the didukh is carried out of the house to the pastures or garden where it is burnt… thus, the “warm spirit” is let out to roam the pastures and fields. This also represents the symbolic burning of winter, appealing to the spirits to “throw off” the “kozhukh” (sheepskin) and let spring into the home. When everything has been burnt, young girls gather the ashes of the didukh and carry them into the garden “so that the cucumbers will grow and prosper”.

Near village churches, water is blessed on that day. Before going to church to collect some holy water, villagers adorn their kitchen utensils, dishes, pots and pans, and bottles with dry cornflower, praying God “to spare their homes and families from attacks of evil spirits”.

Traditions of Second Holy Night in Podillya

In Podillya, the mistress of the house or the eldest daughter puts a few tablespoons of flour into a bowl, mixes it with holy water, and kneads it into a thick batter. She then solemnly takes this dough and pastes crosses on all four walls of the house, the porch, barn, stables and other household structures to “guard the home against evil forces”.

The father takes a bowl of holy water and sprinkles all the people in the house, saying: “May God grant us another year!” Next, he sprinkles the corridors, the pantry and the perimeter around the house.  The youngest son picks up three pies and follows his father. He bites into the first pie in the corridor, the second – in the barn, and the third – in the yard.

Traditions of Second Holy Night in Nadnipryanshchyna

There is a similar custom in regions along the left and right banks of the Dnipro River. The father makes a sprinkler from dry cornflowers and sprinkles holy water on all household objects, and then the pantry, barn, and stables. The father is followed by the youngest son or daughter holding a pie and piece of chalk.  The child draws a cross on all the buildings and objects that have been sprinkled with the holy water. Crosses are drawn on doors, windows, tables, kitchen cupboards and armoires – everywhere… as well as on all farm tools, such as plows, harrows, planters, rakes, sickles, etc. Finally, the father solemnly sprinkles the cows, oxen, sheep, and horses. Only the pigs and chickens are excluded.

As for the pie, in some villages the child that draws the crosses must take a tiny bite of the pie and swallow it slowly. In other towns, the child follows the father with the pie, and after the sprinkling, the whole family sits down at the table and shares it, chanting “Grant us, O Lord, bounty and prosperity… for us and all our children”.


After dinner, everyone puts their spoons into a bowl and a loaf of bread is placed on top… so that “bread may multiply and prosper”. If a spoon “turns over by itself” during the night, the owner of that spoon will die. The remaining kutya is fed to the chickens “so that they may breed and multiply”.

In the evening, the mother lights a lamp “so that the chickens may lay many eggs”. On this day, chickens shouldn’t be addressed or called in a loud voice as a nasty or jealous neighbor might hear it and cast an evil spell: “Your chickens, but my eggs, I say!” and the chickens will refuse to lay any more eggs.

Traditions of Second Holy Night in Halychyna

In Halychyna, Western Ukraine, “Hungry Kutya” is celebrated as Shchedry Vechir (Night of Sincerity). Hay is spread under the table, the kutya and 12 Lenten dishes are placed on the table, and the didukh in a corner. The father enters the house with a sheaf of wheat, chanting greetings and good wishes (vinshuvannya):

“I wish you happiness, health and prosperity! May this Holy Supper bring us happiness and health and may we all live to see the next holy celebration – from a hundred years to a hundred years more – until the hour and minute that our Lord has appointed for us all!”

Before dinner, the father kneels before the icons and prays to God to bless his family. The family then sits down to partake of the Holy Supper.

Young girls tell fortunes, collect all the spoons from the table after dinner and stand on the threshold of their house, clanking them loudly: “Wherever the dog howls, it is there that I will find him and marry!

After supper, children and young people go from house to house, chanting and singing unique carols (shchedrivky). Each caroler carries a bunch of hazel twigs. The master of the house takes a handful of oats soaked in water, and pours them into a caroler’s bag, and the caroler gives him a hazel twig. The oats gathered by carolers during Shchedry Vechir are considered the best for planting while the hazel twigs have special powers to protect cattle and animals from “all roaming evil spirits”.

Photo: Anna Senik

Photo: Anna Senik

In Chortkiv, Ternopil Oblast, girls do not go caroling, but stay home and wait for the carolers. However, the carolers do not enter the house of a grown-up maiden and carol at her window. If the boys pass by the girl’s house and do not sing at her window, they insinuate that she is still too young to be courted and “should continue to eat her boiled “kasha” (porridge) and sit on the pich (oven)”.

The night the animals talk…

There is an old folk belief that “animals speak the tongue of humans” on Shchedry Vechir and Svyat Vechir (Christmas Eve), but you must not intentionally listen to them. It is a sin to overhear animals talking and God will punish you severely if you do so willingly.

A curious story is recounted in Halychyna:

“A man had a pair of oxen. He had once heard that animals speak when their masters feed and tend to them. So, he fed his oxen well and hid in the corner of the barn. Suddenly, he heard them talking: “We have a wonderful and generous master, but tomorrow we’ll take him to the cemetery.” And it was so, God punished him for listening to hbis animals, and he died the next day.”

There is a similar tale in Kyiv Oblast:

“… he wanted to hear the speech of his cows and oxen, so he crawled into the barn in the middle of the night. He lay there until midnight, but heard nothing. The farmyard and barn were silent; his cows lay on the hay, chewing their cud. The oxen were also resting when suddenly one got up… The other looked at him and said: “Why don’t you lie back down in the soft hay? Why are you tiring your legs?” The master lay still, listening closely. The standing ox said: “What’s going to happen to us now? Our master has very little feed and spring is still far off. Who will take care of us until spring?”… The master heard everything and wondered at this miracle… Then, the other animals spoke up: “Well, our master has stacks and stacks of straw… it’s been lying around for three whole years. He could feed us till we go out to the pasture lands. If he thrashed all that straw, then we’d have enough… But, our master will not do any thrashing because he will soon die.” And so it came to be…”

As the Second Holy Night draws to an end, the mistress of the house leaves the kutya and other symbolic dishes on the table for the “spirits of our ancestors who will come and visit our home and share the Holy Supper during the night”. The next day, the family prepares for Vodokhreshche – the Feast of Baptism of Jesus Christ in the River Jordan celebrated in Ukraine on January 19.

Source: various Ukrainian Internet sources

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  1. Avatar Eolone says:

    Interesting article. The night the animals talk is associated with Christmas. The animals at the manger led to this fantasy in Christianity, but the belief of talking animals appears to be older.

    The next day, January 19, John baptizes Christ. St. John is sometimes referred to in connection with the Essenes. To their contemporaries, the Mandaeans, John the Baptist was a prophet; they did not accept Christ. This points to the antagonism between the followers of Christ and those of John. We can see who won this battle by who baptizes whom. Both the Essenes and Mandaeans disappeared from the Jordan Valley at
    the same time.

  2. Avatar IdeaMaidan says:

    Nicely informative piece, with one glaring omission: You don’t give any explanation or account of what either kutya or the
    didukh actually is (although I realize another recent EP article
    discussed the latter).

    Wikipedia gives a decent account of both for anyone in the dark:

    “In Ukraine kutia is an essential dish at the Ukrainian Christmas Eve Supper (also known as Sviata Vecheria or Svyata Vecherya). It is believed that kutia has been known to Ukrainians’ ancestors since pre-historic times.

    The main ingredients used to make traditional kutia are: wheatberries, poppy seeds and honey. At times, walnuts, dried fruit and raisins are added as well…”

    “A diduch, or didukh (Ukrainian: дідух), is a Ukrainian Christmas
    decoration; made from a sheaf of wheat, it is a symbolic sacrifice
    taken from the best of the autumn harvest. “Didukh” literally means “the spirit of ancestors”. Didukhy are traditionally made from the first or the last stalks of wheat reaped during the year. It symbolizes the household’s wish for an abundance of nature and a bountiful harvest for the upcoming year. Before the holidays, wheat ears or stalks are gathered with colorful threads, then the bunches are tied with ribbons. A didukh is placed in most Ukrainian homes before Christmas, and kept until Maslenitsa (Carnival).”

    Here is a video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fr02sF8bCwQ)
    from over a decade ago in which you can see in its opening moments what I assume is a didukh (although perhaps not a Christmas one), utilized in a sort of re-enacted ritual by the “avtentyka ensemble” Hurtopravtsi. Interesting, among other things, is that a number of the re-enactors are currently important figures in the Ukrainian music world. Two of the best female singers in Ukraine at the moment—Susanna Karpenko and Olena Romanenko from TaRuta—are both present. I believe the person more or less leading the ritual is the founder of Hurtopravtsi, Iryna Klymenko, a significant figure in her own right. The tall man in the dark
    attire who appears in the first few minutes is the kobzari Taras Kompanichenko. The dark-haired woman dancing with him is now a singer in another “avtentyka ensemble”, HulyayHorod, as is one of the men dressed in traditional Cossack uniform. The very young looking female violinist I believe was in an earlier version of TaRuta.

    One does not have to be a practicing sociologist, incidentally, to realize that neither the people reenacting this ritual, nor the people watching it, likely have any immediate connection with the rural environment within which this type of ritual was originally situated. Almost certainly, rather, these are denizens of the urban middle class. One might on this basis criticize such endeavors as somehow false and artificial, perhaps even deserving of a bit of derision—Sophie Pinkham in a recent article in Dissent pretty much characterized Taras Kompanichenko along these lines.

    I’m inclined to think, however, that not only do such endeavors have a definite interest in and of themselves, but that they are probably capable of generating of a whole host of potential social value, too, in ways that touch on personal interrelations, community integration, and so forth. If nothing else, it is probably the case that middle class individuals with an active interest in such ancient rituals are likely to be the type of citizens who passionately care about the community and country that they live in, in the beneficent manner that Anne
    Applebaum pointed out in her article a couple of years back regarding the necessity of “good nationalism”.