The Gregorian calendar places Christmas Day on Dec. 25, the date when most Canadians celebrate. But Ukrainians and others whose roots are in the Orthodox churches follow the Julian calendar. For them, Christmas falls on Jan. 7.
I have been learning some of the Ukrainian Christmas traditions and want to share them with our daughter. My husband is Ukrainian and somewhere along the lines after the Baba and Gedo sold the farm we lost track of all these traditions. I want her to know her heritage.
For Ukrainians, an important part of the observance takes place on Christmas Eve, Jan. 6. At the end of a day of fasting — only light snacking allowed — to commemorate the difficult journey of Mary travelling to Bethlehem, families gather to share a traditional supper, Sviata Vechera. An extra place may be set at the table, in memory of recently deceased family members, and a candle is placed in the window as an invitation to a homeless stranger or a lost soul.
Much of what happens at the Christmas Eve table is prescribed by tradition. A handful of hay is placed on the dining table to symbolize the manger and is covered by a fancy embroidered tablecloth. For a centerpiece, three circular breads, called kollach or kalach, are stacked one on top of the other, encircling a candle. The symbolism of the trinity, eternity and prosperity is both religious and secular. The children must watch for the first star in the eastern sky, the signal that the meal may begin. After the patriarch of the family brings a sheath of wheat to the dining room, symbolizing the gathering of the clan, and offers a traditional greeting, the family prays and the meal begins.
Dinner consists of 12 dishes, representing the 12 apostles. There are many traditional Christmas Eve dishes, some of them served at every Sviata Vechera. Everyone present is expected to eat some, even just a small taste, of each dish. No meat, animal fat, milk or milk products can be included in this meatless meal, but fish is served.
The first dish, always, is Kutya, made from cooked wheat combined with honey, ground poppy seed, and sometimes chopped nuts. It’s often eaten from a common dish, and in some families, a spoonful is thrown at the ceiling. If it sticks, it predicts a good harvest in the coming year. Next may come pickled dishes, such as pickled herring or mushrooms or borsch, beet soup, made without meat or meat stock for this occasion.Some of the fish dishes that might follow are fish balls or patties, coated in crumbs and browned in fat, fish in aspic or baked stuffed fish. Pyrohy or Vernyky (what I would call perogies), with fillings of potato and onion, or with sauerkraut, are made without cheese, bacon fat or butter for the meatless Christmas Eve meal. Likewise, the Holubsti (cabbage rolls) are made without meat for this occasion. Beans, legumes and cabbage or sauerkraut all signify prosperity in the coming year. Kolochena Fasolia, mashed beans, is a natural for this meal, and a healthy economical dish. Dessert on Christmas Eve may be Honey Cake (Medivnyk), or a compote of dried fruit.
Please share your Ukrainian traditions and stories with our family so I am able to share more. I look forward to sharing with our family as we move forward learning more about his heritage.
Merry Christmas Everyone