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Ukraine and its diaspora weather their first Christmas since the invasion began

Two people guide a large crate into a container.
Joe Steger
Rocky Mountain Aid Foundation
Rocky Mountain Aid Foundation volunteers move crates full of supplies for Ukraine. The foundation has had to brainstorm new ways of moving supplies across the border since winter began.

As the holidays begin, the war in Ukraine drags on. Russia’s invasion has altered Christmas traditions, while the winter weather makes it more difficult to deliver medical supplies.

Professor Sasha Skiba has watched the war unfold from his home in Laramie. Skiba is the head of the economics department at the University of Wyoming. He grew up in USSR-occupied Ukraine and he’s gotten to see his homeland embrace more and more freedom in the years since.

“After Ukraine became independent, and especially in the western parts of Ukraine, Christmas became a big, big tradition again,” Skiba said.

He said Christmas in Ukraine is really a whole holiday season — thanks in part to the different influences and calendars of its neighbors.

“We have Catholic Christmas, St. Nick's, New Year's, Orthodox Christmas on the seventh,” Skiba said. “And then we also celebrate what's called the Old New Year, which used to be the new year before we switched the calendar.”

You’ve likely heard the sounds of the Ukrainian New Year on the radio this month. Carol of the Bells, a popular Christmas tune in the states, started as a Ukrainian folk song about the coming of spring.

But this year, Christmas, like all things, feels different for Ukrainians at home and those abroad. As Skiba celebrates Christmas with his American-born children, his parents are back home in L’viv — where electricity is spotty and air raid sirens are common.

“I don’t know what this feeling is, but it's this feeling of constant guilt that you could be doing more,” he said. “Because some people of similar age and similar, you know, lifestyle, training, whatever, they're serving, they're protecting their land — like my cousin was just called up into the National Guard.”

Skiba isn’t the only Ukrainian watching the war from afar. Halyna Matcikh and Olena Kostiushko were able to temporarily relocate to Cody thanks to the United for Ukraine program. That program lets Americans sponsor individual Ukrainians, who can then live and work in the U.S. for up to two years. Matcikh said she’s found a warm welcome in Cody.

“And now we have a good place,” she said. “Good people, kind people. I think now we're fine. Now we have a new family, a new Ukrainian-American family, and a lot of people who help us.”

And Kostiushko said, despite the war, Cody is a great place for her family this holiday season. She said her kids can’t get enough of the Christmas lights on houses around town.

“Every evening we can go to another place and see a lot of things,” she said. “It’s so beautiful and good.”

On the other side of the Big Horns, Ukraine is also seeing some love from Sheridan. Joe Steger, a real estate agent, launched a nonprofit this year to get supplies from Wyoming to the frontlines.

Steger doesn’t have any personal connections to Ukraine, but he sees Russia’s expansionism, as many do, as a threat to the west.

“There are horrible things that happen throughout the world every single day,” he said. “But the Russian invasion of Ukraine has staggering geopolitical ramifications if it's not dealt with.”

Steger’s nonprofit is the Rocky Mountain Aid Foundation. He’s been hand delivering medical supplies like individual first aid kits and tourniquets, getting them across the Polish border and into Ukrainian hands. He’s spent almost three and half months on the ground in Ukraine since the war began.

But it’s gotten more difficult as winter brings bad weather and attacks on civilian infrastructure bring power outages. The trains don’t run as consistently and Steger has faced a number of new hurdles.

“So we just find solutions to those problems,” he said. “We switched out mostly to using vans and our local Ukrainian connection points where we just drive into the country, or I walk across the border with suitcases full, and find a way to get to L’viv and then just kind of start figuring it out.”

Most of Ukraine is farther north than Wyoming. So it gets darker earlier. It’s also colder and wetter so a Ukrainian winter is fierce in a way that even Wyoming winters are not.

And this year, many in Ukraine will have to go without Christmas lights — both because power is inconsistent and because those lights, like any lights, could guide a Russian missile strike.

“I think it's easy for us to take our Christmas for granted,” said Dr. Kent Kleppinger, a Laramie pediatrician who volunteered his talents in Ukraine earlier this fall. But when you hear about how others are experiencing Christmas this year, it really kind of tears at you.”

Now that he’s back in the states, Kleppinger is taking and sending photos back to some families he met in Ukraine — photos of Laramie houses done up for the holidays with lights or yard displays. He’s sharing the spirit of Christmas with people who can’t go in for all the usual decorations, celebrations and gatherings.

“It's really nice for us to have a real complete Christmas, you know, with a lot of gift-giving and huge feasts,” Kleppinger said. “These are people that are wanting a warm apartment and just a meal.”

As the war continues and the holidays come and go, Ukrainians and their allies are hoping for peace and freedom in the new year.

Jeff is a part-time reporter for Wyoming Public Media, as well as the owner and editor of the Laramie Reporter, a free online news source providing in-depth and investigative coverage of local events and trends.
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