My secretly cherished Ukrainian Christmas

An eight sided Christmas Star. Artists: Ihor and Julia Polishchuk

Christine (Chrystia) Curkowskyj for New Pathway – Ukrainian News.

I was born in the Siberian Gulags of Kazakhstan. However, I am not a Kazakh. I was raised in Poland, although I am not a Pole. Only upon landing in Canada in the early sixties, as a teenager, was I told, to my shock, that I was of Ukrainian heritage. As a result of very complex historical and political upheavals brought about by WWII , in my formative years my young parents found themselves living as Poles in Poland.

As children, my brother and I could not understand why our parents always kept up our Christmas tree longer than our neighbours kept theirs. We always put our tree up on Christmas Eve (December 24) and kept it up until after January 7th. I remember one Christmas evening, our parents put my brother and me to bed early. We knew that there were treats in the room where the tree stood and we thought we would help ourselves to some cookies and candy. But the door to the room was locked and the key was missing. Through a keyhole we saw our mom and dad sitting together on the sofa quietly, sadly, singing what sounded like Christmas carols. The Christmas tree was lit with little candles and everything looked magical. We went back to bed knowing that it was better not to ask any questions.

I was older than my brother and I knew that there were things that my parents did not want to talk about. It had to do with their past. Mostly, they avoided talking about their life “behind the Bug River” and the horrors of the Siberian Gulag. I remember being interested in a notebook my mother often referred to. And, as I got older, I became more curious to see what was in it. But I was not allowed to glance through it. I learned that it contained wonderful recipes for Christmas dishes, specific dishes such as:: “kutia”, borsch, “varenyky”, cabbage rolls, fish (fried and marinated), compote from dried fruit, “pampushky”, “kolach” , “makivnyk”, honey cake, and most importantly, mushroom sauce. Mushrooms were special to me because my dad and I would pick them in the early fall. Our forays into the woods to pick wild mushrooms left me with the most wonderful memories of my childhood.

Years later, I found out why my mom could not show me her notebook. She had written down the recipes in Ukrainian. Use of the Ukrainian language, written or spoken, after WWII in Poland was simply not advisable.

Mother had written down these recipes in the Siberian Gulags. There, the winter evenings were long and the women would share their best recipes. They would sing, recall memories, not knowing how long they would have to endure their exile or if they would ever return to their homeland and celebrate Holidays in a “normal”, traditional way. I recall, one Christmas eve aunt Stephania brought us presents. My father received a book. He picked it up, examined the cover and turning to the first page, to my surprise, he kissed it. I wondered if it was a Bible. It wasn’t a Bible. It appeared to be written in Russian but it wasn’t, it was written in Ukrainian and it was a Kobzar.

Years later, I found out that my father, when he was a young man, used to recite poems from this book. It was very precious to him. The Kobzar was written by Taras Shevchenko, Ukrainian’s greatest poet.

Before my grandparents left Poland for the USA, my grandfather made me a beautiful star out of wood to be placed on top of the Christmas tree. For some reason, my parents “conveniently” lost the star. Years later, I was told that because the star had eight points, it was a traditional Ukrainian symbol.

Today, in my Toronto home, I proudly crown my Christmas tree with an eight pointed star. It stands in my living room window for everyone to see and nobody questions it. Ukrainian carollers carry a larger version of the star when they are welcomed into my home to sing traditional carols.

This year, as in years past, on Christmas Day, January seventh, referred to as Orthodox Christmas, my family and I will be listening to, and singing Ukrainian Christmas carols, including the well-known “Carol of the Bells”. It was composed by Mykola Leontovych who, tragically, was assassinated by the KGB for being talented and a Ukrainian.

So, yes, I do cherish my once, but no longer, “secret” Ukrainian Christmas traditions.

“Chrystos Razhdayetsya – Slavite Yeho”
Christ Is Born – Glorify Him