© Al Bryski
Christmas on the Homestead:
I was born to parents of of different nationalities. My father was the Canadian born son of Polish immigrants who settled in the District of Saskatchewan in the North-West Territories in 1899. My mother was an Ukrainian immigrant who in 1928 left Ukraine, which was under Russian control, for Canada. They were married on November 10 of 1929. This was a bit of an unusual union as at the time of their marriage most Ukrainian and Polish people carried centuries-old grudges toward each other.
Because my dad was Polish, we were practicing Catholics of the Latin rite and thus we celebrated Christmas on December 25 as per the Gregorian calendar. Most of our neighbours were of Ukrainian descent and celebrated Christmas on January 7 according to the Julian calendar. It was in this way that my family got to celebrate two Christmases, the first one on December 25 at our place, and the second one on January 7 at the home of one of our Ukrainian neighbours.
Although we celebrated what our neighbors referred to as English Christmas, everything else about the Christmas was done in the Ukrainian tradition because of my mom’s cultural background. The most important part of Christmas was the Christmas Eve evening meal called “Holy Supper” (Svyata Vechera) in literal translation. According to custom, all members of the family should be home that night for a family reunion. Our last Christmas Eve supper on the farm where our whole family of six was present occurred in 1951. The next time we would all be present as one unit had to wait for another 30 years in the city of Winnipeg.
The supper on this special evening differed from other evening meals, having twelve Lenten dishes, as a symbol of the twelve Apostles who gathered at the Last Supper.
The dishes were prepared with a vegetable shortening or cooking oil, omitting all animal fat, milk and milk products because Christmas is preceded by a period of fast which ends on Christmas Day after midnight or morning church service. The day of the Christmas Eve is a strict fast in commemoration of the hardships endured by the Virgin Mary, Jesus’s blessed mother, on the route to Bethlehem. The table was set according to time honoured tradition. It was the chore of the children to cover the table with a small handful of fine hay in memory of the Christ Child in the manger. Over it my mom spread the her very best tablecloth adorned with embroidery that she had lovingly and carefully done by lamplight seated at the same table through long winter evenings. We would also spread hay on the floor of the kitchen and the living room. My father would then secrete walnuts, filberts, pecans, Brazil nuts, almonds, and peanuts, all in the shell, in the areas where we wouldn’t walk on them. After supper while the older people visited and sang Ukrainian Christmas carols, we young people would search out the nuts and take turns with the lone nutcracker to shell them and enjoy this special treat.
Bread (kalach), symbolizing prosperity, was the main table decoration. Three round, braided loaves which my mom had baked the previous day were placed one on top of the other with a candle inserted into the top loaf. The bottom loaf, we encircled with tiny twigs of evergreen left over from trimming our Christmas tree. Lit candles on both sides of the loaves completed the table decoration. If a member of the family had died during the year, a place was set for that person in the belief that the spirit of the deceased unites with the family on that magic Holy Night. A lighted candle was always placed in the window as an invitation to any homeless stranger to join the family in celebrating the birth of Christ.
Before the evening meal a spoonful of each dish is mixed into the feed of the domestic animals, because animals were the first creatures to behold the new-born Christ. The first star in the eastern sky announces the time for the beginning of the meal. It was the children’s duty to watch for the star. This “honor” often fell to me. I suspected it was to keep me from underfoot during the meal preparation. Each member of the family was dressed in their Sunday best. My father in keeping with tradition would bring a small bundle of wheat, or what was called “did” or “didukh” (grandfather), a symbol of the gathering of the clan. He would greet us formally with traditional salutations, expressing joy that God had favoured us with good health and general well-being. The sheaf was placed in the corner of the living room and remained there until New Year when it was taken out and burned.
We would all gather around the table and then begin the meal with the Lord’s prayer in Ukrainian. The first dish was kutya, a preparation of cooked wheat dressed with honey, ground poppy seed, and sometimes chopped nuts. This ritual dish, of a very ancient origin, has survived innumerable generations without losing its importance in this Christmas festivity. My father would raise the first spoonful of the kutya, invoking God’s grace, and he would greet the family with the traditional Ukrainian Christmas greeting, “Khrystos Rodyvsya” (Christ is born), to which we would all reply in unison: “Slavimo Yoho!” (Let us glorify Him). Following this everyone had to partake of the kutya, if only but a spoonful. Occasionally my uncle would then take a spoonful of kutya and carefully fling it at the ceiling. If it stuck that meant a prosperous year. My mom was not crazy about this tradition.
Kutya was followed with a serving of my mom’s most excellent borsch. After which came one or more preparations of fried fish, 2 kinds of meatless cabbage rolls made of buckwheat and of rice. My mom was famous for her cabbage perogies and her potato mixed with cottage cheese perogies with a fried butter and onion “gravy”. We also had mushrooms which we had picked the previous summer and fall, dried, and then on Christmas Eve morning, cooked them in a special gravy. There was a pickled beet relish along with an eye-watering hot horse radish relish. There were pickled herrings. Everything was followed by more kutya and then Christmas pastries.
During the course of the meal we would toast each other with sweet wine. Usually my father would raise his glass, and say “dy Boszhe”, literally God grant us. We would have to put down our utensils, grab our glasses, and respond with “pay zdorovya” or to your health. Nowadays you will hear it as “pave the road” by non-speakers of Ukrainian. After the meal we would sing carols while the older people would reminisce about the past year. There would be a minimal amount of gifts under the tree. Times were tough and gifts cost money which was better used for daily survival. Nevertheless this was one of the best evenings of the year…and two weeks later we would repeat the supper ritual at the homes of one of our neighbours or relatives.
In the afternoon of the Ukrainian Christmas Day, continuing late into the night and through the following days, organized groups of carolers visited homes, singing ancient and modern carols, bringing traditional Yuletide greetings, and soliciting funds for worthy causes. I missed out on this because before I was old enough to join the carolers, I had moved to Winnipeg.
I still try to follow a lot of the old traditions with my family where possible. The foods are now made by my wife and me. Our family clan now consists of my family and any guests who might otherwise be spending a lonely Christmas.