Monday, January 09, 2006

Ukrainian Christmas may be a Canadian prairie province tradition, according to Colby Cosh. I'm from the prairie provinces myself and love the tradition. My mother grew up in Manitoba and we celebrated Ukrainian Christmas each year in January. Often we opened Christmas presents that day, too. We'd usually travel two days to our grandparents' house for Dec 25 Christmas, with four kids, two parents, winter gear and all the presents we had to give away to aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents, stuffed to within a foot of the ceiling of our full-sized van. After that, there just wasn't room for the stack of presents my parents bought for us kids, or that we'd bought for each other. So we'd leave those presents at home and delay gratification until early January with Ukrainian Christmas.

Of course the day also provided an opportunity for my mother to become a Ukrainian babushka, to cook the dishes she'd had as a child and serve them as a special treat for her own children: lovely yummy perogies, delicious sweet kutia, hearty holubtsi and the rest of the traditional twelve meatless dishes. The odd thing? We're not Ukrainian. Not at all. On my mother's side, English and Scottish Canadians. Nor did she take this tradition on for my father's family, who are almost all French-Canadian with a couple Scots and possibly Indian ancestors thrown in. No, she just picked up this Ukrainian tradition from proximity in rural Manitoba.

One year, living in Ontario when I was fifteen or sixteen, we nearly missed Ukrainian Christmas. My mom was travelling home the day before, but her trip was delayed somehow. When she called, my father and sister and I looked at each other in dismay, unable to imagine missing the traditional feast. No pyrogies? No kutia? How would we survive winter without? We talked each other into doing this ourselves even though my father's better with ad-hoc cooking than with established recipes, and my sister (younger) and I hadn't had much experience. But we dove in, hunting down Mom's recipes written on stained index cards, and even making stuff up when we got stuck. The kutia was great (almost impossible to mess up), I seem to recall the holubtsi was tricky to roll up in neat bundles but it was quite edible as messy piles of flavored rice somewhat contained in cabbage wrappings. The pyrogies were the toughest and many fell apart during boiling (later we discovered that they weren't supposed to have butter in the dough). But it all tasted OK, and we tallied up twelve dishes by liberally counting bread and buns and different kinds of pickles (including the necessary beet pickles) each as separate dishes. I felt so grown-up when my mother came home just in time for dinner and we enjoyed our feast.

Today I still do this, even now that I'm in California with no family nearby. For one, it gives me the chance to serve a distinctive meal for some vegetarian/kosher friends. It's also, naturally, a chance to reminisce as I cook and taste the flavours. In those years when I travel back to Canada during Christmas and Hannukah, it's my one chance to do a family holiday evening with my closest California friends. When I'm lucky, some years I manage to have a Christmas, a Hannukah and a Ukrainian Christmas dinner too. Each year I remember that one year I asked my mother why we do Ukrainian Christmas when we aren't Ukrainian. She answered that it was her belief that everybody should be able to adopt the culture of their choice, without limitations due to actual genetic descent. Three mid-winter feasts a year? That's my kind of multi-culturalism.

2 comments:

clith said...

When you asked me about perogies the other day, I was a bit surprised, since I thought they were actually an Italian thing. I first had them when I got together with my wife, who is Italian, and whose mother and grandmother made them by hand. Her parents moved to Canada from Italy shortly after WWII.

Maybe it's just a general European thing?

Reid

clith said...

Okay, never mind. Luisa says that of COURSE they're not Italian. What was I THINKING.

They still taste good to me. I often feed them to my youngest for lunch, and he loves 'em. They sell frozen bags of them at Dominion and Valu-Mart.

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