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On Christmas, Ukraine's Orthodox Christians try to find solace

ANDREW LIMBONG, HOST:

Russian President Vladimir Putin gave his forces a cease fire order in Ukraine in observance of the Orthodox Christmas holiday, which is celebrated today. NPR's Tim Mak is in Dnipro, Ukraine, as residents look for solace beyond the promised pause in the war.

TIM MAK, BYLINE: On Christmas Eve, Tamila Hryhoreva (ph) invited us to the Children's Art Center, where she worked. In this predominantly Russian-speaking city, she insisted on speaking Ukrainian, and in that language, she waxed poetic about the local Christmas traditions.

TAMILA RIHORIEVA: (Through interpreter) Every region has different traditions, but the main tradition in the whole of Ukraine is to serve wild, vegetarian and feast dishes for Christmas.

MAK: Dishes like kutya, a grain dish with sweet gravy, and varenyky, boiled dumplings, along with an assortment of other dishes like cabbage and mushrooms.

HRYHOREVA: (Though interpreter) And on the table they put straw and wheat, and garlic is put on the corner.

MAK: A typical bundle of wheat, called a didukh, to symbolize abundance and garlic to ward off evil. Tamila says she is celebrating Christmas twice this year, once with the West and once in line with old traditions.

HRYHOREVA: (Through interpreter) Personally, I don't mind because we, as Ukrainians, like to gather in joy or in sorrow with our families. I speak from the bottom of my heart because nothing will help you more in life than unity and the support of your family.

MAK: And as we left, she insisted that we attend the Christmas fair for children that she was leading the next day.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MAK: Christmas Day began as a sunny day, yet bitterly cold, with lows down to 12 degrees Fahrenheit. As Tamila led the children in games and songs, we came across a tent with local beekeeper Olena Mykhailiuk (ph), a joyful, smiling woman selling cookies and honey wine. Even in the cold, she seemed upbeat.

OLENA MYKHAILIUK: (Through interpreter) If you intrude on Ukrainians, it's the same as if you intrude on a beehive. They will sting so badly that you will never forget it.

MAK: American and Italian bees, she said, are so tame you could walk naked past them without any worries.

MYKHAILIUK: (Through interpreter) Don't go naked around Ukrainians because you will have troubles.

MAK: But the jokes and the jolly atmosphere evaporated in a moment when I talked about whether this Christmas differed from years past. Her face dropped.

MYKHAILIUK: (Through interpreter) We used to dance and sing a lot, and now we can't dance and sing as much. It is sad because a lot of friends, families, people, boys from our village have been killed.

MAK: Almost as if on cue, as she was reflecting, the air raid alarm started to sound, indicating a possible bombardment by Russian forces.

(SOUNDBITE OF AIR RAID SIREN)

MAK: Is that the air siren that's going off, sir?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking non-English language).

MYKHAILIUK: (Speaking non-English language).

MAK: She wasn't afraid, she said. They're used to that by now. Still, the children stopped dancing and the music was put to a halt. For the honey maker, Christmas in Ukraine this year was bittersweet. Tim Mak, NPR News, Dnipro. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tim Mak is NPR's Washington Investigative Correspondent, focused on political enterprise journalism.