After taking up a gun to lead his country’s battle against the invading Russian army, Ukraine’s Jewish President, Volodymyr Zelensky, became an international hero. But recently, he has become a religious icon, with some people even lighting votive candles to “Saint Zelensky.”
In an address to the Danish Parliament in late March, Zelensky tapped into a widespread and deeply ingrained Nordic tradition of lighting a candle as a symbol of hygge (domestic coziness). As a result of this tradition, Denmark uses more candles per capita than any other country in the world, and 28% of Danes light candles every day. Zelensky urged the Danish people to channel this tradition toward his country’s cause in his address.
“I know that in Denmark, a candle is an image of hygge and normal home life. That’s a life many people in Ukraine can hardly imagine,” he said during the address.
“I would ask people at home in Danish families today to light a candle in memory of the Ukrainian lives that have been lost to the Russian invasion. In memory of those who have sacrificed their lives for our peace and freedom,” he said.
This call was taken up and even commercialized as companies began marketing Zelensky candles with some organizations used this to raise funds to aid Ukrainian refugees. But some of these candles took on religious overtones, becoming votive candles for “Saint Zelensky.”
Zelensky was born Jewish, and his great-grandparents died in World War II. But he does not shy from bringing religious elements into his efforts to lead his country through these difficult times. On Easter, he sent out a video Easter message from the Saint Sophia Cathedral in Kyiv, ending his address with the words, “Christ is Risen!”