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For their safety, Ukrainian kids send their Christmas wish lists underground

Children pose for photos in front of a Christmas tree and other holiday decorations in a metro station in Kharkiv, Ukraine, on Dec. 11.
Natalie Keyssar for NPR
Children pose for photos in front of a Christmas tree and other holiday decorations in a metro station in Kharkiv, Ukraine, on Dec. 11.

KHARKIV, Ukraine — The majestic square in Ukraine's second-largest city is quiet this December. There is no Christmas tree or light show or pop-up skating rink.

"That would have all been nice," says 17-year-old Danyil Prokopenko, bundled in a down coat as he walks into a subway station. "But we have found our own way to celebrate."

He walks downstairs, past a shivering young man busking for coins, and to the subway platform. Few people are boarding the train. Instead most are gathering around a modest Christmas tree decorated with incandescent white bulbs and a white star.

Next to it is a small hut with a mailbox where children can drop off letters to Ded Moroz, or Grandfather Frost, who is like the Slavic version of Santa Claus.

The underground Christmas village

Kharkiv's city council decided to install their Christmas village underground this year, in a chandeliered subway station that doubles as a bomb shelter. Russian missiles continue to hit the Kharkiv area, endangering lives and damaging the power grid. Local authorities say the downsized underground Christmas village keeps residents safe and also saves electricity.

The symbolism resonates deeply in Kharkiv, an elegant city of intellectuals and artists in Ukraine's northeast, near the Russian border.

This spring, when Russian bombing and artillery strikes were especially bad, thousands of residents spent weeks sheltering in subway stations.

People take shelter in a metro station in Kharkiv, Ukraine, on April 30. Citizens in Kharkiv adopted a new life underground at subway stations, as the second biggest city in Ukraine faced a constant threat of Russian bombardment and airstrikes.
/ Alex Chan Tsz Yuk/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images
/
Alex Chan Tsz Yuk/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images
People take shelter in a metro station in Kharkiv, Ukraine, on April 30. Citizens in Kharkiv adopted a new life underground at subway stations, as the second biggest city in Ukraine faced a constant threat of Russian bombardment and airstrikes.
People visit a metro station in Kharkiv, Ukraine, to pose for photos with a Christmas tree and drop off letters to Grandfather Frost on Dec. 11.
/ Natalie Keyssar for NPR
/
Natalie Keyssar for NPR
People visit a metro station in Kharkiv, Ukraine, to pose for photos with a Christmas tree and drop off letters to Grandfather Frost on Dec. 11.

A gift of peace

Nine-year-old Maksym Pushnir frowns when he remembers that time. "I know the city wants to keep us safe, but being here also makes us feel very sad," says his father, Kostia, after they take photos of each other next to the tree.

Maksym walks to Grandfather Frost's mailbox and drops off his Christmas wishes letter. He says he's asked for two gifts — a PlayStation 5 and peace.

"Everyone asks for peace," he says, including 5-year-old Eva Mintseva. "I also asked for a phone to take photos," she adds. Her mother, Natasha, explains that Russian troops forced them out of their home in the Kharkiv region, and that when they returned, their house was destroyed. "She wishes she had more photos of our house so she can remember it," Natasha says.

People pose for family photos in front of a Christmas tree and other decorations in a metro station in Kharkiv, Ukraine, on Dec. 11.
/ Natalie Keyssar for NPR
/
Natalie Keyssar for NPR
People pose for family photos in front of a Christmas tree and other decorations in a metro station in Kharkiv, Ukraine, on Dec. 11.

The complicated politics of Grandfather Frost

Outside, it's getting dark and cold. Behind the subway station, 27-year-old Kostiatyn Novikov changes into his Grandfather Frost costume. It's bright red and looks like a much frillier version of Santa's outfit, with gold embroidery, fluted sleeves and a flowing cape.

Left: 27-year-old Kostiatyn Novikov in his Grandfather Frost costume. Right: 4-year-old Emma Kochalka with Grandfather Frost. Kharkiv, Ukraine, on Dec. 11.
/ Natalie Keyssar for NPR
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Natalie Keyssar for NPR
Left: 27-year-old Kostiatyn Novikov in his Grandfather Frost costume. Right: 4-year-old Emma Kochalka with Grandfather Frost. Kharkiv, Ukraine, on Dec. 11.

Novikov, an actor who's played Grandfather Frost for five years, works for weeks, from western Christmas on Dec. 25 through to the Orthodox Christmas on Jan. 7.

Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, he says, Grandfather Frost has become a controversial figure because of his roots in Russian mythology.

"Growing up, I never considered him Russian, just a fairytale character," he says. "Grandfather Frost is the jolly one who sings and dances."

As if on cue, 4-year-old Emma Kochalka spots Novikov as Grandfather Frost outside the subway station and runs to him. She hugs him and smiles. Her mother, Iryna Kochalka, says Emma dropped off a letter for Grandfather Frost at the mailbox in the underground Christmas village.

She asked for a fluffy white cat toy and, pretty please, for her daddy, a soldier, to come home soon.

Hanna Palamarenko contributed to this report from Kharkiv.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Joanna Kakissis is a foreign correspondent based in Kyiv, Ukraine, where she reports poignant stories of a conflict that has upended millions of lives, affected global energy and food supplies and pitted NATO against Russia.