Christmas Lights on Mortar: How Ukrainian Defenders Spent the Holidays

December 28, 2023
Ukrainian soldiers revisit their memories of celebrating Christmas and New Year amidst the challenges of military duty.

Do you associate celebrating the winter holidays with repairing a tank or decorating a mortar? If not, you were lucky enough to have spent the season far from the front. However, not everyone was so fortunate. Ukrainian soldiers shared their memories from 25 to 31 December 2022 so that we can once again remind ourselves this year what fighting for freedom involves.

As we publish last year's recollections, it's worth noting that this year hasn't differed much.

You can imagine how military service changes one's attitude toward common things, including Christmas and New Year's. While these holidays were celebrated by all in ordinary times, they were forgotten by some in Ukraine's new reality. War does not halt for special occasions, as the enemy doesn't sleep and has no mercy.

This was the atmosphere Vlad experienced last December. While many were celebrating the birth of Christ and the upcoming new year, he was deployed to defend the Ukrainian-Belarussian border. And he expected Russian troops to attack each night, including New Year's Eve.

It was very damp, with water everywhere, and the village itself was located on water. I stayed there for two weeks, living in a simple village house.

It occurred to Vlad and his squadmates to decorate their hut, but they had neither the decorations nor time.

"I served as a sergeant, responsible for training soldiers. They were on duty every day, and I had to oversee their activities while simultaneously providing their combat training."

The damp crept into the festive days of yet another soldier, Vladyslav. In the autumn of 2022, he was transferred from a combat unit to a logistics unit, where he repaired military equipment, specifically tanks. He worked there for the whole holiday season, which is why he barely noticed its passing.

"We worked in the worst possible conditions (if, of course, we compare them with the working conditions of civilians). It was colder and more humid indoors than outside. I would stop feeling my legs and arms half an hour after starting work, leading to constant 'dropouts' of people due to illnesses. During the festive period, the days did not stand out at all. Each day was typical: waking up at 5:30, lining up at 7:30, and starting work, going until 6 p.m. This was probably the first year when I did not feel the holidays at all."

It wasn't being on duty that particularly spoiled Vladyslav's mood, but rather being in the wrong place --- in the rear. As he mentioned, he belongs to a combat unit, and this time, he will welcome the New Year among its ranks.

"Since February 2023, I have been back in my combat unit. That's why I feel much better and am looking forward to the holidays, to be with my family, even despite the fact that the events at the front are obviously less rosy than a year ago."

However, spending holidays with family at home is rare in soldiers' lives. It casts a shadow over this joyful period for both soldiers and their loved ones, who are deprived of a pause without fear and worries for their partners. Such was the story for Ira, who expected her boyfriend Oleh home, but it was not to be.

Right before the holidays, Ira's boyfriend was relocated to Donetsk Oblast from the rear. There, he had to learn to operate drones.

"He couldn't even call me on New Year's Eve. He was very busy and fell asleep right after the clock struck midnight, after watching the President's address online. He and other soldiers lived in an abandoned house where some Ukrainians used to reside. They heated it with a furnace and with electric heaters. Of course, they had nothing to decorate the house with---everything was new, and his unit and colleagues were new. Early on the morning of January 1, they had an early wake-up around 5 a.m. and worked as usual."

The snow, awaited by civilians looking through their foggy home windows, is not so well-received at the front, where battles are raging and drones need to scout for the enemy. Thus, not having snow for Christmas didn't upset anyone in Oleh's unit.

The war has distanced Oleh from usual sources of joy in many ways.

Ira mentions that when she expressed a desire for them to be together on New Year's Eve last year, Oleh didn't even see it as a special occasion anymore. For him, being at home means just being at home, regardless of the day. Before the war, however, everything was different.

Oleh used to love this period of time. We prepared for the winter holidays when we celebrated together. We bought a Christmas tree, tried to come up with a nice menu, cooked together (as Oleh loves to cook), decorated the Christmas tree at our home and at my grandmother's house, and watched Christmas and New Year's movies. So, yes, holidays were a real joy for him when he spent them at home.

The good news is that this year will be different, even though Oleh is at the front again. He and his comrades managed to buy the Christmas lights and already put them on the walls. They were also sent a little Christmas tree and even some caviar (the traditional winter holiday delicacy in post-Soviet countries)! The chance to celebrate the holidays dramatically improved their spirits this year.

There are also those who used the occasion to make the festive days brighter than others. A soldier from the 3rd Battalion of the Ukrainian Volunteer Army, Blind Fury, Separate Repair and Restoration Regiment spoke about how they filled their holidays with joy last year.

We spent the previous New Year right in a combat zone. There were no combat missions on New Year's Day, so we celebrated in the house where we lived. We set up a mortar in the yard, took a garland, and decorated it like a Christmas tree. Then we set a New Year's table, preparing dishes such as an Olivier salad, dressed herring, and so on down the list.

Of course, they did not know if it would be possible to celebrate at all, as war has no plan. There was no formal Christmas truce as in 1914. Nevertheless, they seized the chance and bought decorations and food, whatever worked. And the almost quiet night worked out.

Like the year before, all the heroes of our story are still in service. Just as the year before, they don't know what this holiday season will bring. However, as reflected in their own words or those of their loved ones, they hold these special calendar dates in mind. All of them used to love the season. It's just that this war, once again, takes away the best from us.

Lisa Dzhulai
Journalist at UkraineWorld