Family in Ukraine Marks Orthodox Christmas Amid the Ruins of Its Home

The smell of oranges and roasting duck wafted from behind the metal door of a small barn as Oksana Kovtun put the final touches to her family’s Christmas dinner.

As she hustled from the outbuilding into the warmth of a small modular home carrying the bird toward the table, a thin dusting of snow settled on the collapsed walls and scattered debris in the center of her yard.

It is all that is left of her family’s house in Makariv, destroyed by shelling this past spring as the Russians made their failed grab for the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, some 30 miles away.

In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, Christmas this year fell on Saturday — the church still uses the Julian calendar, rather than the newer Gregorian one — and the set-piece family meal comes on Christmas Eve. Friday was the first Christmas Eve the Kovtuns have spent at war, now living alongside the ruins of their house in a donated temporary building.

With one of her sons in the army in the east, and with no permanent home, the past several months have at times felt punishing, said Ms. Kovtun, 49.

“But there is nothing else to do, we have to hold on,” she added. “You can sit and cry, but then you get up and get to work. And that’s how it is.”

The Kovtuns were among countless Ukrainian families celebrating the holiday under stark new circumstances. Many have damaged homes; many more were displaced entirely or have fled the country as refugees.

Even in areas that have never been near the front lines, celebrations were taking place amid hardship and uncertainty, after weeks of attacks by Russian forces on critical civilian infrastructure that have crippled Ukraine’s ability to provide consistent electricity, heat and water.

Such conditions can turn the Christmas Eve meal into both an act of defiance and a demonstration of resilience. In the Kovtuns’ modular home, the electricity flickered out two hours before dinner was set to begin. But flashlights were close at hand.

The youngest in the family, Ms. Kovtun’s 7-year-old grandson, David, struck a match to light candles on the table with the swift hand of someone for whom it has become a nightly ritual.

“You can’t really call it a house now,” Viktor Kovtun, Ms. Kovtun’s husband, said of the tiny prefabricated building, which had been sectioned off into three rooms. Without its electric heating, it would cool quickly, Mr. Kovtun, 53, explained, lighting a gas heater instead. “But we will rebuild,” he said of the family’s lost house.

It will not be the first time they have remade their home of nearly three decades. “When we bought it, it was just walls and a roof, no windows, doors or floor,” Ms. Kovtun said of the house they bought in 1997. “And we have been building and building.”

They raised their two sons there, and then added on to make room for their daughter-in-law and eventually their grandson — three generations under one roof. They had more work planned for when their son Mykhailo, 22, was scheduled to return last year from military service. He had joined the army in 2021.

But only days after they finished renovating their kitchen in February, Russian forces occupied Makariv as they invaded Ukraine from the north. Battles between Ukrainian and Russian troops soon engulfed the area.

“There was no siren, no alert, we just heard the shelling,” said Tetiana Kovtun, 30, who is married to the couple’s oldest son, Vitalii, also 30. They barely had time to grab a few belongings as they fled.

Weeks later, on March 16, artillery fire burst through the wall of the elder couple’s bedroom. A second rocket slammed into another wall. The shelling and subsequent fire nearly leveled the home, and the family dog was killed.

But the elder Ms. Kovtun’s pain over their loss is laced with optimism. She had escaped town safely before the devastating attack, along with her husband, Vitalii, Tetiana and David. Weeks later, Russian forces were ousted, and the family eventually returned to survey the damage.

They found their house in ruins, but an outbuilding — a barn with a small kitchen — had survived. So the couple moved in there for a time.

“When we arrived and had to live in the barn, I was saying, ‘It doesn’t matter what conditions we live in if it’s home,’” Ms. Kovtun said. “Home is home.”

Their modular building arrived in November, donated by a Ukrainian charity as part of a program called Nest that has erected 585 homes in the Makariv area alone. It has made it possible for the family to live on-site while they try to rebuild.

Just before Christmas Eve dinner, Ms. Kovtun’s phone rang. It was Mykhailo. His father’s face lit up, and David leaped toward the phone to yell a Christmas greeting to his uncle. Mykhailo — who is a chef in the military, his service now extended for the duration of the war — described the dinner he was making for his fellow soldiers.

When her sons were young, Ms. Kovtun said, she would send them outside to look for the first Christmas star in the sky before they began their meal, an Orthodox tradition. Now, David, Ms. Kovtun’s grandson, took up the search as the family gathered for their dinner.

Only days before, on New Year’s Eve, the family had gazed at the night sky together in horror, their eyes drawn up by the unmistakable buzz of several Iranian-made drones launched by Russian forces. They were most likely destined for Kyiv, part of a major Russian attack as the new year began. Many were intercepted, however: Vitalii showed videos of the explosions on his cellphone as the family gathered in the small kitchen.

The customary 12 dishes served on Christmas Eve crowded the Kovtuns’ modest table, and David helped his grandmother count them out one by one. The first that they served was kutya, a traditional dish made of wheat berries, poppy seeds, nuts, raisins and honey.

Some of the plates the family used were pulled from the ruins of their home, among the few things to survive.

The family recipe book was lost in the fire, so this year Ms. Kovtun made many of the traditional dishes from memory.

Next year, Mr. Kovtun said he hoped his family would have Christmas in their newly rebuilt home. They plan to begin work in the spring.

It is that work that keeps the family occupied and distracts the Kovtuns from what they have had to endure. Ms. Kovtun eases her mind by telling herself maybe the home was simply the price her family had to pay in this war.

Maybe it will prevent something worse.

“But when we rebuild the house, we will have a huge party there. I’ll get drunk and then I’ll start crying and I’ll cry out all of the pain, every last drop of it,” she said. “Now, there is no time to weep.”

Oleksandra Mykolyshyn and Natalia Yermak contributed reporting.

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