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Kharkiv residents move their holiday decorations underground

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Ukrainians are marking their first winter holiday season at war. And despite the constant threat of missiles and artillery, they're finding a way to celebrate. NPR's Joanna Kakissis sends us this postcard from Ukraine's second-largest city, Kharkiv.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Kharkiv's main square is quiet this December. There are no lights or Christmas tree or the pop-up skating rink that 17-year-old Danyil Prokopenko loves so much.

DANYIL PROKOPENKO: (Speaking Ukrainian).

KAKISSIS: "That would have all been really nice," he says. "But this year, we have found our own way to celebrate." He walks into a subway station, past a young man busking for coins and down the stairs to the platform.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

KAKISSIS: Few people here are actually getting on the train. Most gather around a tall Christmas tree decorated with incandescent light bulbs and a white star. Next to it is a small hut with a mailbox where children can drop off letters to Grandfather Frost, who is like the Slavic version of Santa Claus. This is Kharkiv's wartime Christmas village.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

KAKISSIS: It officially opened earlier this week in an elegant subway platform that doubles as a bomb shelter. Nine-year-old Maksym Pushnir sheltered for weeks in Kharkiv's subway this spring when the bombing was especially bad.

MAKSYM PUSHNIR: (Speaking Ukrainian).

KAKISSIS: He drops a letter with his Christmas list into Grandfather Frost's mailbox.

What do you want for Christmas this year?

MAKSYM: PlayStation 5 and myr.

KAKISSIS: Myr - that means peace. Every child we speak to asks for peace, including 5-year-old Eva Mintseva.

EVA MINTSEVA: (Speaking Ukrainian).

KAKISSIS: And, she adds, maybe a phone to take pictures.

Outside, it's getting dark, and it's cold.

KOSTIATYN NOVIKOV: (Speaking Ukrainian).

KAKISSIS: Here, we find 27-year-old Kostiatyn Novikov changing into his Grandfather Frost costume.

Is this the first time you've put on the outfit since last year?

NOVIKOV: (Through interpreter) Yes, first time this year.

KAKISSIS: The costume is bright red, like Santa's suit, but with frilly sleeves and a long cape.

So you've got these big, red boots. Wow, look at that cape (laughter). No, that's quite a cape.

Novikov is an actor who's been playing Grandfather Frost for five years. He works for weeks, from the Western Christmas on December 25 through to the Orthodox Christmas on January 7.

NOVIKOV: (Speaking Ukrainian).

KAKISSIS: He says that since the Russian invasion, Grandfather Frost has become controversial because of the character's roots in Russian folklore.

NOVIKOV: (Speaking Ukrainian).

KAKISSIS: "Growing up, I never considered him Russian," Novikov says. "Just a fairy tale character."

As if on cue, a young mother named Iryna Kochalka shouts for joy when her 4-year-old daughter, Emma, spots Novikov as Grandfather Frost.

IRYNA KOCHALKA: (Through interpreter) We have just sent letter to Father Frost, you know, but there was no one in his hut. And here, we are so happy to see him here outside.

KAKISSIS: Emma whispers to Grandfather Frost that she's hoping for a big, fluffy, white cat toy and, pretty please, for her daddy, a soldier, to come home soon.

Joanna Kakissis, NPR News, Kharkiv. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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.