The debate raging across Ukraine: Are Christmas trees a waste of power or a joyful rebuke to Putin?

Published by The Daily Mail (December 22nd, 2022)

When I ask Yulia Grechan about last Christmas, she smiles and says that ‘everything was great’. She was married to her childhood sweetheart, happy with their two young children and running a fast-food business that was doing well.

Since her husband Oleh had just joined the army, leaving his job in a bank to serve his country, Yulia spent Christmas Day with the children. 

Instead, the couple met up for New Year’s Eve. And as the clock struck twelve, they celebrated — talking to their children, who were staying with their grandmother, on Zoom — looking forward to a new year filled with hope.

Little more than one month later, Russian forces poured over the nearby border, seizing their home town of Kupiansk in eastern Ukraine and demolishing their lives.

Yulia, 32, and her children Milana, eight, and Viktoria, six, now live as refugees in Kyiv. She has lost her home, her work and her husband — who has been in Russian captivity since suffering a head wound during fierce fighting near Donetsk some eight months ago.

She only found this out after a friend glimpsed Oleh with a scarred face in a YouTube video in May. Then he appeared again in June being paraded as part of a Russian propaganda film.

And in August, he was allowed to send a three-line letter saying that he loved his family and promising to make it home. 

Yulia has since heard nothing — and has no idea about the state of his health. ‘His head was shaved and he looked exhausted in the second video,’ she says. ‘It is so difficult mentally because I want to cry the whole time, but I must be strong for the children. I love him so much and just want him home for Christmas and New Year.’

Yulia’s is just one tale of tragedy among far too many in Ukraine — and this festive period should remind us how the lives of countless ordinary people have been smashed by Vladimir Putin’s savagery. 

Like Yulia, few Ukrainians had any inkling last Christmas of the terrible fate that would befall them this year. But now they are united in common cause — and almost all answer the same when they are asked what gifts they might like this year. ‘The best Christmas present is total liberation,’ says Ivan Fedorov, the mayor of occupied Melitopol.

Fedorov, who was rescued from detention by Ukrainian special forces after being marched off from his office with a bag over his head, says this year had been ‘very hard’ after losing his city and seeing his friends killed by the Russians. ‘But we have become more together as a nation and our wish is for a united Ukraine inside the European Union and Nato. We want to break everything that connects us to Russia.’

Even the timing of Christmas has become a focus for resistance. For centuries Ukrainians and Russians alike have celebrated Christmas according to the Julian calendar followed by the Orthodox churches, which place the date of the birth of Jesus on January 7.

But this year, Ukraine’s Orthodox church has sanctioned observance on December 25, in alignment with the rest of Europe. The reason is simple: to show contempt for both Moscow and the repulsive Russian Orthodox church leaders who blessed Putin’s assault, claiming it is ‘heroic’ to kill Ukrainians and that a soldier’s death in battle ‘washes away all sins.’

Alla, 58, a souvenir shop owner in Zhytomyr, tells me she and her sister will attend church and celebrate Christmas on December 25 for the first time in her life: ‘We want to be closer to Europe and in such way we can say “no” to Putin.’

Typically, New Year is the more important celebration in Ukraine — but a big family meal is still eaten on Christmas Eve with the serving of 12 festive dishes. ‘Kutia’ — a grain dish typically made with wheat and a sweet gravy of raisins, poppy seeds, nuts and honey — is the most important.

Children serve it to their grandparents, and some is even left on the table overnight for dead ancestors.

Yet for many, the thought of celebrating at all this year seems unthinkable at a time when soldiers are still fighting on a freezing front line, with so many families having been broken apart and a fierce struggle for energy after recent waves of relentless Russian attacks on Ukraine’s energy infrastructure.

But people are stoic in the face of constant power and heating outages, several comparing their defiance under bombardment to Britain in the Blitz.

Restaurants have simple ‘blackout menus’ for when there is no power. And people in cafes switch on mobile phone lights when the room goes dark.

But the problems caused can be profound. One woman, for instance, wearily tells me she lives on the 24th floor of a tower block yet has been unable to use the lift for three consecutive days. 

Elena Gaevska, a mother of three from Odesa, is also trapped since her 12-year-old son has cerebral palsy. ‘We can’t take him out since, if the lift does not work, we’d have to carry him and his wheelchair up seven storeys, which is impossible,’ she says.

So her son has spent the past weeks stuck on the sofa despite ‘adoring’ his trips outside. To make matters worse, he needs his food blended by a machine which can sometimes be out of action for up to 20 hours.

Last year Elena, who owns a firm teaching English to workers in Ukraine’s maritime industry, enjoyed a traditional and happy Christmas with her family. ‘I thought it was impossible to have war, just too stupid,’ she says.

Now she feels she cannot stay a moment longer in Ukraine and plans to leave in the New Year. ‘I am used to being strong and during all these months of war I managed to stay calm,’ she says. ‘But after living one month without power, heating, [with] water problems, without mobile or internet connection, without the chance to earn money and — worst of all — without the ability to take care of my son who is completely helpless, it is breaking me.’

This is, of course, part of Putin’s malevolent aim — to destroy the lives of citizens while devastating the country’s infrastructure, hoping his drone and missile strikes will drive out more refugees whom, he hopes, Ukraine’s allies in Europe will begin to see as a burden.

Even the simple question of whether to put up Christmas trees in civic centres sparks fierce debate. Some argue it is not a time to celebrate and that decorative lights are a waste of electricity, while others insist festivities must be encouraged for the sake of Ukraine’s children and so as not to bow to the Kremlin’s terror.

Borys Filatov, mayor of Dnipro, Ukraine’s fourth-biggest city, reacted angrily to those who criticised his plans to go ahead with a tree. ‘Let them sit in the dark and depressed and rejoice that they shouted over the rest of the citizens,’ he fumed on social media.

Kyiv — which usually boasts a spectacular Christmas market with lights and rides — has opted simply for a smaller tree, which is decorated with baubles in the national colours of blue and yellow along with white doves of peace. ‘We cannot allow Putin to steal our Christmas,’ says Vitali Klitschko, the capital’s mayor and three-time heavyweight boxing champion.

Kharkiv, Ukraine’s heavily-attacked second city close to the border with Russia, has taken the innovative decision to set up its tree underground in the metro station beneath its usual place in Freedom Square. In the southern city of Mykolaiv, a ‘Christmas tree for the indestructible ones’ — made out of camouflage nets that will be sent to the army after the holiday season — has been erected.

Serhiy Sukhomlyn, the mayor of Zhytomyr whose 22-year-old son has joined the army, tells me he decided against a tree since it felt wrong when 249 people from his city have died serving in the military.

Instead they will buy presents for kindergartens, schools and military families — although he adds that the best gift for the nation would be ‘300 tanks, 200 airplanes and Patriot missile systems’ to speed up the path to victory.

Sukhomlyn, who has a skeleton dressed in captured Russian uniform by his office door, gives me a gold-painted trident — the emblem of Ukraine — to stick on top of my own Christmas tree. A similar decoration appears on the tree in central Kyiv.

Driving back to the capital in heavy falling snow, I stop in Makariv — the furthest point west of Kyiv reached by Putin’s forces during the early days of their botched invasion. I find 61 families, whose homes have been destroyed, living in tiny cabins provided by Poland.

‘We never expected the Russians to come here,’ says one woman. ‘But we had all the same incidents of raping, looting and torturing by their troops.’

Vitalina, 41, a former factory worker, tells me her home was destroyed in early March when three Grad missiles thundered into her apartment block — the final one narrowly missing her as she leapt through a window.

‘I bought my house nine years ago and put all my money into it. When the children asked for new clothes or toys I would say, “no, we must spend on the house”,’ she says.

Now she lives in a container smaller than the average British living room with her three daughters aged three, 13 and 18.

‘My youngest one asks all the time when will we go home. It’s very difficult to explain we don’t have a home any more,’ she says. ‘When there are loud sounds she puts her hands over her ears and says, “Mum, they are shooting.”’

Valentyna Vovynska, 76, a former tax inspector who now serves as the community’s leader in Makariv, tells me everything she owned was destroyed by a hail of missiles as she hid on the floor of the town’s cultural centre.

‘Like many Ukrainian women I had so many beautiful things but they all turned to ashes in 30 minutes,’ says the mother of two. ‘Now I know that possessions can disappear but people are so important. It’s all down to the Russians. We don’t care about celebrations: we just want them to go away, to leave us in peace.’ 

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