As the painful Feb. 24 anniversary draws ever closer for Ukrainians – a year to the day since Russia launched its all-out attack– the man responsible for Kyiv’s main Christmas tree is already choosing the decorations for December 2023.
In the late autumn of 2022, two trucks with Dutch number plates crossed the Polish border into Ukraine. They drove to Motyzhin, near Kyiv, and then made their way to Dobropark – a huge recreational center with a hotel, lavender and tulip fields, playgrounds, and cafes.
True, as they arrived, Dobropark no longer looked like a nice place to relax. The hotel was in ruins – destroyed by mortar fire. The lavender and tulip fields had been flattened by Russian tanks. Only debris remained from the cafes and playgrounds. Nonetheless, dozens of people were already working to clean up the territory and restore the buildings, play areas, and flowerbeds.
The trucks’ cargo was key to this work – half a million tulip bulbs from the small Dutch town of Keukenhof which were unloaded and planted before the onset of winter.
The park’s founder, Igor Dobrutskyi, loves flowers and nature in general. He is also a fan of Ukrainian folk traditions and, for many years, he has been responsible for Kyiv’s Central Christmas tree, which, since the Revolution of Dignity, has stood on Saint Sophia Square.
Each year, Dobrutskyi decides how the tree should look, while his associates plan the program of Christmas fairs and concerts which attract around three million visitors.
A war-time Christmas tree
Despite on-going Russian aggression, in the autumn of 2022, Dobrutskyi dreamt of erecting a 31-meter-high Christmas tree in the square. But he had to fight public opinion and all kinds of official institutions to be allowed to put up any kind of tree.
First, Dobrutskyi posted three sketches of possible tree designs on his Facebook page - thinking that readers’ comments would help him decide which to use. Within 12 hours, about 5,000 indignant messages had appeared under his sketches. The overwhelming majority were demands that he forget all about Christmas trees for the duration of the war. The respondents were angry to think that public money might be spent on such a thing when the Ukrainian army needed so much support. Dobrutksyi's assurances that the tree would be installed at the expense of private sponsors did not help. Almost everyone demanded that the sponsors’ money be given to the army as well.
Some people might have given up, but Dobrutskyi turned to Kyiv’s City Hall for help. Mayor Vitali Klitschko immediately supported the idea of a Christmas tree for the city. At this time of stress and fear, caused by the Russian invasion, Kyivites – especially children – deserved a celebration. Now it was necessary to obtain a dozen permits from various city and state services, including permission from the military.
The military expressed fears that Russia would try to bomb the center of Kyiv precisely during the Christmas and New Year holidays. They were strongly against any mass gatherings. Other services had their own objections. At every office Dobrutskyi visited, discussions went on for hours but, in the end, it was agreed that the people of Kyiv should have a proper Christmas tree.
Dobrutskyi still does not know if the country’s central Christmas tree was under the special protection of Kyiv’s air defenses, but the modest festivities on Saint Sophia Square passed without incident. Dutch sponsors donated a generator to power the tree lights in the evenings. There was always an official on duty near the generator and it was turned off at exactly 23:00 – when the curfew started.
In addition to traditional Christmas decorations, the tree was arrayed with 350 white, paper doves. Once the tree was taken down, the doves were sold in an online auction and all the money was transferred to the account of the Ministry of Defense. The generator was also sent to the front. No one knows how many people visited the tree, but I noticed small crowds around it every time I crossed the square.
Looking towards Christmas 2023
At the end of January, Dobrutskyi spent a couple of days at “Christmasworld” – an international exhibition of festive and seasonal decorations in Frankfurt. where he decided that this year’s Christmas tree should have blue and turquoise decorations.
“The next Christmas tree will be much taller!” he told me confidently. “Maybe even 31 meters high! After all, we will be celebrating the Ukrainian army’s victory!”
As well as restoring his park, Dobrutskyi is now organizing an exhibition of Ukrainian Easter eggs in the U.S. Before the war, he amassed a collection of about 1,000 giant plaster eggs - each about one meter high and uniquely decorated by a Ukrainian artist.
During past Easter holidays, these eggs were exhibited in Kyiv’s squares and streets. However, they were mostly kept in Dobropark and, after its liberation from the Russian invaders, only about 100 were found intact. It is this remnant of the collection that will cross the Atlantic in time for Easter 2023, bringing a reminder of Ukraine’s enduring folk traditions and a message of hope.
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