Our Christmas: nothing's really changed

by Orysia Paszczak Tracz

You think you're helping and comforting them, and you're the one who benefits the most.

These are usually my thoughts after my monthly evenings at The Holy Family Nursing Home in Winnipeg, but especially so this mid-December. I visit one evening a month, and I guess I could call myself the program or the entertainment for that week. The residents who are able - physically and mentally - to sit through an hour or so of talking and singing are brought to the sitting area where we meet.

In the past, we've talked about folk medicine and Shevchenko (on different evenings), and we sang. Therapists know that music heals and comforts, and this was certainly true when we sang together. I tried to select the real oldies but goodies, including "Dai Nam, Bozhe, Dobryi Chas," which everyone remembered. We will sing more in future visits, especially because I'm learning new verses I haven't heard before.

The residents at the nursing home are a microcosm of Ukrainian Winnipeg. There are those who were babies when they arrived with their pioneer parents around a century ago, those who were born in Manitoba 100 or 90 years ago, those from the post-world war immigrations (both of them), and now the elderly of the later immigrations (from Poland and Ukraine). Right after dinner on this December evening (bedtime is early in a nursing home), we gathered to talk about Ukrainian Christmas traditions. I looked forward to learning something new, as well as confirming certain things I had read. I went through the traditions of Sviat Vechir (Christmas Eve), and into Malanka (New Year's Eve) and Yordan (Feast of the Epiphany) - and as I mentioned a particular ritual or custom, at least one of the residents would add more. What was especially interesting was to hear how on the farms in Manitoba, or in the city of Winnipeg back in the 1910s to 1930s, the same celebrations were happening as in Ukraine.

We started with kutia (the ritual food of cooked wheat grains, poppy seeds and honey), and it was interesting that in many regions of western Ukraine whence most of the residents or their families emigrated, this dish was just called "pshenytsia" (wheat). But this was not ordinary wheat, because even the pronunciation of "pshenytsia" was reverent. We discussed varieties of fish, borsch and mushrooms. The fillings for varenyky certainly went beyond potato and onion, sauerkraut, plums, other fruit and berries. There were varenyky filled with buckwheat, and one lady always made sardine-filled varenyky, which her family enjoyed. This filling could have been a variation on a fish filling, with the canned sardines an economic necessity - or, maybe the family really liked them.

The various broad bean dishes were discussed, and these were especially popular among those from Bukovyna and Podillia (salamakha - a casserole of crushed beans and garlic; the word also means something that is a real mess). "Horokh z kapustoiu" (dried peas with sauerkraut baked in a casserole) is a phrase also often used to indicate that something is all mixed up.

There was a discussion of what the liquid refreshment should be on Sviat Vechir, with one lady saying that they drank only wine that evening, and everything else the next day. All remembered the empty place setting, and leaving the food for the souls all night. Some spoke about throwing the kutia to the ceiling, and what a problem that became when the ceiling was a stuccoed one.

One woman remembered the pampushky fried in konopli (hemp) oil, done in that oil only for Sviat Vechir, and how delicious they and the oil were. She started up "Boh Predvichnyi" in almost the same melody we all know, but with a folk kick. The rhythm and melody almost reminded me of a kolomyika, but the words were all there. She would sing out the koliada whenever the spirit moved her during the rest of the evening.

Some visiting adult children sat with their resident parents. One son, probably in his late 50s himself, later told me how much he enjoyed reminiscing, because he and his wife, their children and grandchildren still celebrate most of the traditions. His quite elderly mother, in her 80s or early 90s, was the daughter of pioneers from Horodenka and Bukovyna. Even though her face was deeply wrinkled, that elegant Ukrainian beauty of eyes, cheekbones and lips was still there.

When I mentioned some custom as it was celebrated in Ukraine long ago, another resident corrected me, "What do you mean in Ukraine? Here in Winnipeg, too!" She was a Winnipeg native, whose parents arrived at the turn of the century.

Carolling was especially fun in the rural areas of Manitoba. The distances were far, the snow was very deep and not plowed, but if the families could not afford horses yet, the koliadnyky walked from homestead to homestead. If a sleigh and horses were available, these were used. Of course, the horses' bridles were decorated for the occasion. One woman remembered that the koliadnyky were fed in every house, and her father, the sleigh driver, also had a charka or two of something stronger to warm up. By early morning the horses pulling the sleigh full of koliadnyky found their own way home. In Winnipeg and among the scattered towns certain neighborhoods were completely Ukrainian, so the koliadnyky just went door-to-door, without asking.

We remembered how cold it could be on Yordan, when the water is blessed outside. It is usually the most bitterly cold and freezing day of the winter so far, and that is the morning the parishioners gather outside for the blessing. Of course, crosses made of blocks of ice stand at every Ukrainian church. And, of course, in the old days, and still now in rural areas, those crosses are cut out of the river or lake ice (at least a foot or two thick by January 19).

In his play "Tin Can Cathedral" about Ukrainian and Canadian church politics in Winnipeg in 1903, Winnipeg playwright Nick Mitchell has the French Roman Catholic bishop look out onto the frozen Red River and remark that there go those "Ruthenians" cutting ice out of the river again! During the Prairie Theater Exchange production of this play, the Ukrainians in the audience were the ones to burst out laughing.

After Yordan, just like back in Ukraine, all the hay and straw from the house and the didukh were disposed of in the traditional way. In the yard, where two paths cross, the didukh and the rest were burned. Of course, reverent, symbolic items such as this could not be just discarded. The family members would then jump over the fire, to ensure health and everything good in the new year. Shades of Kupalo! A person from the Gardenton-Vita area of southeastern Manitoba even has a photograph of his mother jumping over the burning didukh.

There are many people of Ukrainian descent in Winnipeg who no longer celebrate "Ukrainian" Christmas. And yet, considering that Ukrainians have been in Canada for over a century now, so very many still do celebrate - and the rest of the community knows, respects and often even envies us for our Ukrainian Christmas.

The seniors at Holy Family Nursing Home are some of the ones who over the years made sure that our Christmas traditions continue to flourish.

Copyright © The Ukrainian Weekly, January 4, 1998, No. 1, Vol. LXVI

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