My family is of Ukrainian descent and we celebrate Ukrainian Christmas. This past weekend was Ukrainian Christmas and I was deep in thought to years past. When I was young and living with my mom and dad, for Christmas on December 25th, we’d have a get together with my dad’s side of the family and for Ukrainian Christmas we’d go to my mom’s parent’s house.
While Christmas was about gift giving and getting together with family, Ukrainian Christmas was a little bit different. First off, there were no presents. As children we associated Christmas with gifts. Since our family didn’t have lots of money for presents for two Christmases, we learnt at an early age that Ukrainian Christmas wasn’t about gifts. It was a quiet time to spend with mom’s family and have traditional food.
Ukrainian Christmas Eve my family would go to Baba & Gedo’s (grandparents) house. This Christmas was much quieter than Christmas with my dad’s family. Mom was an only child and there might be 10 people there for Ukrainian Christmas Eve. For dad’s family Christmas there would be upwards of 25 + people, depending if everyone could make it for the holidays. Christmas with dad’s family was loud! There would be lots of kids playing and talking and joking amongst the adults. After a few drinks the adults would get louder & louder. At Baba & Gedo’s Christmas Eve, us four children were always expected to be quiet and respectful of the adults talking. This Christmas was much quieter as the adults had maybe a glass or two of wine and that was it. This was the one time of year us kids would get a SMALL glass of wine. It was disgusting but we always wanted to have some!
As Baba and my mom were getting the food ready, us girls would set the table. My Baba had a set of dishes she would only use for special occasions like Christmas and Easter. We had to carefully wipe the dishes and cutlery then set the table. At the time we felt like it was a pain in the butt to wipe all the dishes and cutlery. Why couldn’t we just use the regular dishes!? As I got older I realized the importance of my Baba having her special set of dishes.
Since our family was Catholic, this meal is meatless. Traditionally the meal is supposed to have twelve dishes but over the years my Baba and mom have omitted a few items. Baba would make kutia, a cooked wheat soup dish and serve it with poppy seeds and brown sugar. The main meal would consist of potato, sauerkraut, prune, apple and poppy seed perogies, rice cabbage rolls, dried mushrooms in a cream sauce, fish and some kind of jellied salad. My Baba had bad arthritis in her hands and still managed to make the perogies and cabbage rolls herself. As I got older I appreciated her uniform, small sized perogies & cabbage rolls. I could never get mine to look as perfect as hers. One of mom’s rules was we had to have a little portion of each of the foods. I’m not sure if this is a cultural tradition or just something she came up with. My younger sister and I hated this rule because we both hated mushrooms. We’d be sure to get the tiniest piece of a mushroom so mom could see we had some on our plates. We’d be sneaky and hide the mushroom in our napkins so we wouldn’t have to eat it.
For dessert we’d have fruit compote, pampushky (deep fried doughnut with prune or poppy seed filling), fruitcake and homemade cookies. Baba didn’t have a recipe for her special Christmas cookies. She’d put in a bit of flour, sugar, baking soda, salt, eggs and butter. Mix it up and have the best tasting cookies. Over the years I watched her make those cookies and kind of guessed how much of every ingredient she’d put in so I could make them, but my cookies never turned out like hers. I grew up eating fruitcake and love it! Nothing beats a good homemade fruitcake. Yes, it has to be homemade cause store bought fruitcake is disgusting!
After supper we’d clean up and spend the evening playing cards. Occasionally our family would go to midnight mass.
The next day was Ukrainian Christmas. Our family would fast all day, no meat or dairy. We would be allowed to eat dried fruit and that was about it. Fasting all day made our supper taste so much better! Later in the afternoon mom would start getting supper ready. Us kids would set the table with our best dish set and cutlery. And once again we’d have to wipe it all before using it.
we always followed were setting a plate for deceased relatives and lighting a candle and letting it burn all evening.
Mom would turn on the radio to our local station and we would listen to Ukrainian Christmas carols. Once we saw the first evening star we’d put on our “good” clothes and sit down for supper. At this supper was my mom, dad, my two sisters and brother. Occasionally my Baba & Gedo would come over if they were feeling okay to travel. Being supper, our day of fasting ended. We’d have the same food as Ukrainian Christmas Eve plus meat dishes; perogies, cabbage rolls, mashed potatoes, gravy & meatballs, ham, chicken, veggies, salads, pickles and cheeses. Every Christmas was the only time of year my mom would serve smoked cheese. This meal was something I always looked forward to. A big feast!
It’s been quite a few years since we’ve had this kind of Ukrainian Christmas. My Gedo has died. My Baba is in a nursing home and has Alzheimer’s and doesn’t remember much of the traditions. My parents are divorced. My siblings have moved far away and don’t get home often. This past weekend I listened to Ukrainian Christmas carols on that radio station and those carols brought back memories of a happy Ukrainian Christmas of years ago.