Churches offer festive dinners to help Ukrainians and Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas

St. Vladimir’s Ukrainian Orthodox Sobor in Calgary held a special Christmas Eve dinner Friday to ensure Ukrainian newcomers didn't spend the holiday alone. (Tom Ross/CBC - image credit)
St. Vladimir’s Ukrainian Orthodox Sobor in Calgary held a special Christmas Eve dinner Friday to ensure Ukrainian newcomers didn't spend the holiday alone. (Tom Ross/CBC - image credit)

For many Ukrainian newcomers and refugees who've moved their lives to Canada, Saturday marks their first Christmas in a new home.

In the Julian calendar, followed by many Ukrainian and Orthodox Christians, Christmas Eve falls on Jan. 6, with Christmas Day following on Jan. 7.

It's usually a time to be gathering with family, carolling and enjoying a large meal, but with the ongoing war in Ukraine, many people won't have that opportunity.

"We have many families that have been displaced," said Father Jim Nakonechny, leader at St. Vladimir Ukrainian Catholic Church in Red Deer, in an interview with The Homestretch.

"We decided this year that our parish ... would make people not feel so lonely and sad over the Christmas time. Instead of celebrating two or three or four together in little houses, everyone's coming together."

Some churches around the province took the opportunity to host large dinners Friday to help bring Ukrainian communities together for the holiday. Services are continuing to be held over the next two weeks, with the holiday season wrapping up on Jan. 19.

Christmas Eve is usually celebrated by preparing a course of 12 dishes, Nakonechny said.

He cooked for all of the guests in Red Deer on Friday, starting with kutia, a course of boiled wheat mixed with poppy seed and honey, kolach (a braided breach), borscht, perogies and plenty of other Ukrainian pastries and delicacies.

"That's kind of what Ukrainians are known for. Nobody leaves a Ukrainian table without being full and going home with a care package," he said.

Another tradition, Nakonechny says, is leaving a seat at the table empty for ancestors or for those who don't have a place to go. It's something of special significance for families this year.

"A lot of them have young children and they're really missing their parents and grandparents and uncles and aunties and cousins during this Christmas season," he said.

"We can gather together and kind of ease that pain and enjoy each other's company."

'It gives some hope'

In Calgary, St. Vladimir's Ukrainian Orthodox Sobor held a similar meal, with dozens of volunteers from the community gathering together to prepare the food.

Olga Matsula, parish council president, said they also wanted to avoid any family having to celebrate alone.

"I would say it gives some hope. It gives them some peace of mind because in Ukraine Christmas is celebrated usually with the big family, extended family," she said in an interview with the Calgary Eyeopener.

"Our centre currently helped [more than] 6,000 people for the last 10 months, and we realized many of them don't have family here in Calgary."

LISTEN | Olga Matsula describes the foods enjoyed during Ukrainian Christmas celebrations:

Over the next few days, Ukrainian families typically carol around their communities to continue the festivities, but Nakonechny says it will likely be an emotional time.

Hundreds of Ukrainians have moved to Red Deer in recent months, he said, many from places that've been destroyed by the war.

"They've been very grateful for the help," he said.

"I know they're all worried about their families and loved ones back in Ukraine, and we pray that there will be peace in the new year."