LVIV, Ukraine – On the eve of the most important Christian religious holiday of the year, Ukrainians clung to centuries-old Easter traditions in the shadow of a war that has devastated and heartbroken much of the country.
At the Greek Catholic Church of the Transfiguration in Lviv’s historic city center, a line of worshipers stood next to wicker baskets they had brought, covered in embroidered fabrics and filled with sausages, smoked hams, Easter breads, butter and cheeses to be blessed by the priest.
It was a ritual celebrated across Ukraine in Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Rite Catholic churches, which follow the Julian calendar and will celebrate Easter this year on Sunday.
The food was intended to be eaten in the elaborate Easter breakfasts after Sunday mass.
Other residents carried Easter baskets down the cobbled streets on their way to churches of all faiths that line the central market district, which has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
As air raid sirens sounded, cafes closed and a group of street musicians took a break from folk music they played on traditional Ukrainian string instruments.
At a nearby crossroads, residents had placed bouquets of flowers at the feet of a statue of the Virgin Mary, next to piles of white sandbags intended to protect the statue from bombing. Since the start of the war, churches have wrapped religious statues in protective wrappers and plastered stained glass.
Russia, which is also predominantly Eastern Orthodox, this week rejected calls from Ukraine and the United Nations for an Easter ceasefire.
Although most Ukrainians and Russians are Orthodox Christians, long-simmering tensions between the two countries’ religious leaders have escalated in recent years. In 2019, the Church of Ukraine, subordinate to Moscow since 1686, gained independence.
This week, Russian airstrikes killed at least seven people in Lviv, but the city has been spared most of the fighting that has raged in the east of the country for the past two months. Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians sought refuge there or passed through on their way to Poland and other countries.
At Lviv Central Station, volunteers distributed Easter chocolates to displaced children arriving from other cities. A family who received the treats had walked for five days with their four children from the devastated southern port of Mariupol en route to the relative safety of western Ukraine.
Many Ukrainians said they are sticking to their traditions in the face of pervasive sadness and fear that the war has brought.
“This year there is not so much happiness in people’s faces and eyes,” said Myroslava Zakharkiv, an English professor at the university. “A lot of people are in mourning, a lot of men have gone to the front.”
Ms Zakharkiv, 48, said she did a traditional Easter cleaning of her house in a village near Lviv. She had also baked Easter bread and prepared food to put in a basket to be blessed at church.
“We hope there won’t be any bombs or alarms, but no one knows what will happen, so we’re a little scared,” she said.
For many displaced people, the war has also meant separation from their families.
Anna Mukoida, 22, said it was the first Easter she would spend away from her family, who stayed in Bila Tserkva, a town 80 km south of the capital, kyiv, as she fled to the city of Chernivtsi in the southwest.
Despite the danger and uncertainty, many Ukrainians were determined to keep the tradition alive.
“Easter in wartime is like sunshine on a rainy day,” Ms. Mukoida said. “It’s very important now to have such days just to feel alive and to remember that there was life before the war.”
Neonila Vodolska, 22, was also moved. She was staying in the western town of Kalush, away from her family in kyiv. To ease the pain of separation from her family, she said she bought a white shirt with traditional dark red embroidery to wear on Easter Day.
“Now I fully understand the importance of saving such traditions,” Ms Vodolska said. “Doing something normal, celebrating something that reminds me of the good times, my childhood, gives me hope.”
In most parts of the country, curfews remained in place on Saturday evening, when many Christians traditionally hold vigils and celebrate a midnight mass in memory of those who waited for Holy Saturday near Christ’s tomb. Instead, many people planned to watch Mass on television.
“We must understand that the gathering of civilians at a predetermined time of duty throughout the night can be a target for missiles, aircraft and artillery,” Ukraine’s Defense Ministry said in a statement on Saturday morning.
In Lviv, authorities initially announced the curfew would be lifted, but later reimposed it after receiving reports that pro-Russian saboteurs might be planning attacks in the city.
Earlier in the week, the head of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, Metropolitan Epifaniy, called on clergy to forego Easter night services in areas of the country affected by the fighting, fearing Russian bombardments.
“It’s not hard to believe that this will really happen, because the enemy is trying to completely destroy us,” he said in a televised address.