LVIV, Ukraine — On the eve of the most important Christian religious festival of the year, Ukrainians clung to age-old Easter traditions in the shadow of a war that has brought devastation and grief to much of the country.
At the Greek Catholic Church of the Transfiguration in Lviv’s historic city center, a line of churchgoers stood next to wicker baskets they had brought with them, covered with embroidered cloths and filled with sausages, smoked hams, Easter bread, butter and cheeses to be blessed by the priest.
It was a ritual celebrated all over Ukraine, in Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Rite Catholic churches, which follow the Julian calendar and will celebrate Easter on Sunday this year.
The food was destined to be eaten in a lavish Easter breakfast after Sunday Mass.
Other residents carried Easter baskets through the cobbled streets on their way to churches of every denomination along the central market district, which has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
As air-raid sirens sounded, cafes closed their doors and a group of buskers took a break from the folk music they played on traditional Ukrainian stringed instruments.
At a nearby intersection, some 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 beginning of the war, churches have wrapped religious statues in protective packaging and boarded up stained glass windows.
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-running tensions between church leaders in the two countries have increased in recent years. In 2019, the Church in Ukraine, which had been subordinate to Moscow since 1686, gained its independence.
At least seven people were killed in Russian airstrikes in Lviv this week, but the city has been spared most of the fighting in the east of the country in the past two months. Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians have sought refuge here or have continued on their way to Poland and other countries.
At Lviv’s main train station, volunteers handed out Easter chocolate to displaced children from other cities. A family that received the treats had walked for five days with their four children from the ruined southern port of Mariupol en route to the relative safety of western Ukraine.
Many Ukrainians said they stuck to their traditions, despite the pervasive sadness and fear that the war brought with it.
“This year there is not so much happiness in people’s faces and eyes,” said Myroslava Zakharkiv, an English instructor. “Many people are mourning, many men have gone to the front.”
Ms Zakharkiv, 48, said she had done a traditional Easter cleaning of her home in a village near Lviv. She had also baked Easter bread and prepared food to put in a basket to be blessed in church.
“We hope there will be no bombs and no alarms, but nobody knows what will happen, so we are a little scared,” she said.
For many of the displaced, the war also meant separation from their families.
Anna Mukoida, 22, said this was the first Easter she would spend away from her family, who were staying in Bila Tserkva, a town 80 kilometers south of the capital Kiev, as she fled to the southwestern city of Chernivtsi.
Despite the danger and uncertainty, many Ukrainians were determined to stick to the tradition.
“Easter in wartime is like the sun on a rainy day,” Ms Mukoida said. “It is very important now to have such days to feel alive and to remember that there was life before the war.”
Neonila Vodolska, 22, was also displaced. She stayed in the western city of Kalush, far from her family in Kiev. To ease the pain of her family’s separation, she said she bought a white shirt with traditional dark red embroidery to wear on Easter Day.
“Now I fully understand how important it is to preserve such traditions,” said Ms Vodolska. “Doing something normal, celebrating something that reminds me of the good times, of my childhood, gives me hope.”
In most parts of the country, curfews remained in effect through Saturday evenings, when many Christians traditionally watch and celebrate a midnight mass in memory of those who waited at Christ’s tomb on Holy Saturday. Instead, many people planned to see Mass on television.
“We need to understand that gathering civilians at a predetermined time throughout the night shift could be a target for missiles, aircraft and artillery,” Ukraine’s defense ministry said in a statement Saturday morning.
In Lviv, authorities initially announced that the curfew would be lifted, but then reintroduced it after receiving information that pro-Russian saboteurs could be planning attacks in the city.
Earlier this week, the head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, Metropolitan Epifaniy, asked clerics to refrain from nightly Easter services in areas of the country hit by fighting over fears of Russian bombing.
“It’s not hard to believe that this will actually happen, because the enemy is trying to destroy us completely,” he said in a televised speech.