I called my cousin Hryts in the little western Ukrainian village of Pidkamin the other day, as I hadn’t talked to him in quite some time, and to be frank, I was missing some of the clarity of vision and wisdom that he has a tendency of inflicting on me whether I like it or not. I was feeling some of the stress from all the preparations, expectations and hype of the upcoming holiday season, and I thought a healthy dose of Hryts might help me deal with it.
I have always been amazed by how well grounded Hryts is, despite having had a difficult life, and living in what by Canadian standards I would term primitive conditions. To boot, despite nearing his ninth decade of life, he is in a state of health and well-being that I can only envy, despite my being more than twenty years younger. The last time we met, he looked upon me with a forlorn expression and declared “My dear cabbage head. What have you done to your body? God gave you the best Ukrainian chromosomes and you have managed to turn all that potential into a sack of fat and bones that even a butcher would reject. You obviously do not eat right and the amount of exercise you do would probably not even keep an earthworm healthy!”
He was right of course, and took it upon himself for the week I was there with him, to work me mercilessly in his garden and fields, while at the same time feeding me a wide variety of his own fresh, home-made organic foods, accompanied by copious amounts of the garlic and horseradish that the village of Pidkamin is famous for. By the time I left, I was feeling healthier than I had been in years.
I reminded him of that as we were talking, and he laughed uproariously. “You diasporans have forgotten how to live properly. You have been spoiled by your decadence and despite having too much, you are never happy. Every time you call me, all you ever do is complain. So what do you have to complain about this time?”
I realized that he was right of course, as he usually is.
“I hate to say it Hrytsiu, but I guess you know me too well. I really shouldn’t be complaining, it being the Christmas season, but somehow, each year it gets to be more complicated and stressful – all the preparations, the gift buying, trying to schedule all the dinners and parties and visits, not to mention spending more than we can afford.”
I could hear Hryts chuckling at the other end of the line.
“You really are a cabbage head! Who says you have to do all that? What do you think Christmas is all about anyway? That’s what you get when you turn St. Nicholas into Santa Claus! As that English writer Charles Dickens once said – Bah! Humbug!”
“But Hrytsiu,” I interjected, “Its tradition! We’ve always done it that way.”
“Oh my!” he exclaimed, “You really do have turnips for brains. Whatever you say it is, it isn’t our tradition. In Ukrainian tradition, the Christmas season was a time to rest, give thanks for the year’s bounty, enjoy each other’s company and celebrate the birth of Christ. Yes, there were gifts, but they were gifts we made ourselves. We didn’t worry about schedules; we had one already available in the church calendar which set the pattern for what we did, the same as what all our ancestors had done since time immemorial. We didn’t spend a lot of money, because we didn’t have any. And somehow, we managed to have a grand time with no stress and no worries. It was truly a joyful season, and should still be if you do it right.”
“Well said Hrytsiu!” I answered. “You are right, we do tend to overcomplicate things and get fooled into thinking that you need to spend money to have a good time. I do have one small worry though that maybe you can help me with – I don’t know what to get you for Christmas?”
“I think I’ve been talking to a tree stump!” I heard him chuckle. “The only thing I want from you is for you to pay attention. That, and call me from time to time to let me know that all of our family’s chromosomes have not gone to waste. Tell me that you think and care about me as much as I do about you.”
“That you can be absolutely sure of!” I exclaimed. “You are always in my thoughts and prayers. And one more thing…”
“Yes?” he inquired.