Friday, January 6 may be just another day for the majority of Hampshire residents but for those fleeing war from Ukraine it is Christmas Eve – Holy Night, a night of family, celebration and connection.

The dates may be different but the sense of tradition, of age-old customs, lovingly honed and welcomed in, is the same.

So this year 64 Ukrainians staying with host families throughout Alton and the surrounding villages gathered for a very special night of feasting, friendship and carolling at the Community Centre in Alton.

With tables laden with the traditional 12 foods of Christmas Eve, each redolent with religious symbolism and generations of memories, the evening began with some traditional Ukrainian carols from the massed voices of the guests and continued with an unaccompanied and affecting rendition of the Leonard Cohen classic Hallelujah by Evalina Abliaiever.

More than one Ukrainian was in tears by the time she hit the first chorus and the room echoed to the swell of voices quietly affirming ‘Hallelujah, Hallelujah’.

With plates piled high with dumplings, salted cabbage, raspberry blinis, olivye – a Ukrainian potato salad – and traditional Kutia, a ‘porridge’ stuffed with apricots and cherries, conversation, hugs and laughter rippled around the room.

“This festival is usually spent at home, just with family around one table,” said Tatiana Kirovych.

But when asked whether this made her sad and homesick, she replied: “No, this, here, this is our family now” – her arm sweeping around the room to encompass the other Ukrainians, sharing food and laughter together and their hosts and teachers of English, gathered to celebrate with them.

A new feeling of family far from home.

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Penny Hames