I look forward to the Ukrainian Christmas season each year with both joyful anticipation and no small amount of apprehension as well. That period “Vid Romana do Yordana” (from St. Roman’s to the Feast of Jordan) consists of a series of both religious as well as secular feast days, celebrations and holidays that gave birth to a wellspring of end-of-year Ukrainian traditions and rituals. I learned these from a very early age, as my parents, being immigrants, held on to these religiously, almost like an umbilical cord to their native land and culture. They were a fundamental part of their identity.
I clearly remember as a child, that it was Sviatiy Mykolaj (St. Nicholas) that brought me presents at Christmas time, and not on Christmas Day but on St. Nicholas Day on December 19. Santa Claus was clearly the benefactor of the other Canadians kids I played and went to school with, but we Ukrainians had our very own Sviatij Mykolaj. Of course, we enjoyed the December 25th holiday, but for us, the real Christmas came two weeks later on January 6th and 7th. That was followed by our own Ukrainian New Year, whimsically called the Old New Year or Malanka, on January 14. The Christmas cycle then officially came to an end on January 19, with the blessing of the waters on the Feast of Jordan.
As my generation grew older, got married and had our own children, our holiday traditions slowly started to change. As we became more “Canadian”, the importance of sticking to the old traditions started to erode as we began to adopt more and more of the local “Canadian” practices. Eventually we came to celebrate both Christmases, though interestingly, they differed significantly in nature and observance from each other.
The “Canadian” Christmas became the focal point for the giving of presents, partying and revelry. The “Ukrainian” Christmas evolved into being more of the religious and spiritual experience that I think Christmas was originally supposed to represent. The commercial side of Christmas was left behind as December 25th came and went, and we could now focus more on the spiritual, cultural and family aspects of the yuletide season. It became the designated time for our annual family re-unions, when the multiple generations of our extended families would get together to strengthen family bonds and enjoy each other’s company. It was also the time when we remembered through our ritual observances, the cultural and traditional legacies that our ancestors had bequeathed to us. We were reminded that we were Ukrainian, and that being Ukrainian was something with a rich and interesting heritage.
I am now a grandparent, and realistically, I realize that much of what I continue to observe as Christmas tradition, will in all likelihood disappear as each succeeding generation of Kishes in Canada becomes more integrated into the Canadian culture. It is not hard to see that the majority of the descendants of immigrants become fully integrated into the ethos and culture of their adopted home within two or three generations. Once my generation is gone, our children, and their children will, no doubt let much of that tradition erode, leaving at most only symbolic remnants of what we still do.
I say all this not with any real sense of sadness, since I know full well that culture and society are not static things but are continuously evolving. Even the greatest civilizations of the past such as the Egyptian, Greek, Persian, Roman, Ottoman or the Chinese of Confucius’ time, all eventually faded from the scene. Yet each left behind cultural and philosophical legacies that continue to influence us to this day.
Ukrainian culture is like that too. I am confident that much of its riches and wisdom will survive too, long after such things like language, borders and politics evolve beyond our recognition. In the meantime, I will continue to value the importance of its place in my life, and try and impart the love of things Ukrainian to my kids and grandchildren. Some of it may stick and get passed on and some may not. But, that is their choice. Our evolution as a human species has led us to recognize that it is of ultimate importance that each individual is endowed with the freedom of choice to shape their lives as they see fit. That too, has always been an important part of being Ukrainian.