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How the Christmas tree became a symbol of national resistance in Ukraine

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The Christmas tree set up annually in the center of Kyiv, Ukraine, is not just a Christmas tree. Over the years, it's taken on different meanings. And NPR's Julian Hayda reports that this year, in the middle of the war, the tree almost wasn't there at all.

JULIAN HAYDA, BYLINE: Walk through most big cities these days and chances are you'll see some sort of evergreen, real or fake, with strings of twinkling lights, reminding folks to just cheer up a bit. It's the holidays. That's usually how things are in Kyiv. Ukraine's national Christmas tree towers over the old city. But this year, blink and you'd miss it.

MARINA MAHYLENKAH: (Speaking Ukrainian).

HAYDA: "There was a huge debate. People didn't want a tree at all," says Marina Mahylenkah (ph) as she stares up at the 40-foot-tall spruce tree. She shrugs.

MAHYLENKAH: (Speaking Ukrainian).

HAYDA: The situation with power outages is tough, she says. Her house, like that of millions, has been losing electricity several times a day because of repeated Russian airstrikes. Thousands of Kyiv residents signed a petition for the mayor not to waste energy on some decorations. But Mahylenkah says she's happy the city went ahead and put one up anyway.

MAHYLENKAH: (Speaking Ukrainian).

HAYDA: "This shows how resilient we are," she says. There's always been a tree here, even in previous wars. Now, she's mostly right. There have been other years that the Christmas tree has embodied resistance in Ukraine.

VOLODYMYR VIATROVYCH: (Speaking Ukrainian).

HAYDA: Ukrainian historian Volodymyr Viatrovych says that the Soviet Union once banned Christmas trees during their campaign of militant atheism in the '20s and '30s. A top propagandist called the winter custom bourgeois excess at the time. But Viatrovych said that people just didn't want to let go of their trees.

VIATROVYCH: (Speaking Ukrainian).

HAYDA: Banning holidays never works, says Viatrovych. So the Soviets rebranded the folksy and Christian holidays to Soviet ones. Instead of Christmas, it was New Year's. Instead of Saint Nicholas bringing kids gifts, it was Grandfather Frost. And to top the tree, always a red star. But at some point after independence, the national tree yet again became a tool of repression.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VIKTOR YANUKOVYCH: (Speaking Ukrainian).

HAYDA: That's Ukraine's last pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych, speaking at a press conference back in 2010. He said people shouldn't be able to protest like they did almost every winter because they'd be standing in the way of crews assembling the national tree. That came to a head in 2013 when Yanukovych ordered special forces to clear out pro-European demonstrators from around the tree, sparking a three-month revolution that led to his ultimate ouster.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Speaking Ukrainian).

HAYDA: The half-built, 115-foot-tall steel spruce became a watchtower for protesters occupying the square. Activists scaled its frame to unfurl hundreds of banners and flags.

MAHYLENKAH: (Speaking Ukrainian).

HAYDA: There were lots of slogans that reflected the spirit of the times, says Marina Mahylenkah, back at this year's tree. She motions to the ornaments.

MAHYLENKAH: (Speaking Ukrainian).

HAYDA: This tree is just as appropriate, she says. Peace doves decorate the tree along with the flags of every country that's donated to Ukraine since the war began.

Julian Hayda, NPR News, Kyiv. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Julian Hayda