Fort McMurray's Ukrainian community keeps Christmas traditions alive during COVID-19

·2 min read

Christmas for Ukrainians usually involves a full house of family and friends eating, singing, and laughing together. However, Fort McMurray’s Ukrainian Catholic and Orthodox population kept their traditions alive as COVID-19 shutdowns stopped large gatherings this year.

Thursday was Christmas on the Julian Calendar, which is used by Ukrainian Catholic and Orthodox churches. On Christmas Eve Wednesday, families and friends would usually meet for Sviata Vecherya (meaning “Holy Supper”), a 12-course meatless meal honouring the twelve apostles.

Afterwards, people would go door-to-door carolling. Fort McMurray woman Oksana Bodnarchuk says this was her favourite tradition.

“Usually people would go from house to house and sing to each other and wish them health and happiness,” she said. “It gives more fun for people to celebrate together.”

This year, Bodnarchuk’s Christmas Day feast was only for the people in her home.

“It’s usually a full house,” she said Thursday. “We would have up to 50 people in our home and it’s always a big, big celebration.”

Local photographer Greg Halinda kept traditions alive at home with a simple family gathering of his household.

“The food is a big part of the culture and we made a big batch of cabbage rolls,” said Halinda. “We don’t typically make them every year, so it felt special to do it this year.”

COVID-19 has also cancelled annual New Year’s Eve celebrations, which is called Malanka, on the Julian Calendar.

Usually, the Fort McMurray Avrora Ukrainian Dance Club would rent Shell Place’s banquet hall and serve pirogies, cabbage rolls, borscht, chicken kyiv and other Ukrainian foods. The club would entertain hundreds of people—usually around 400 attendees—with dancing and singing.

Halinda, whose daughter is a member of the dance club, would photograph the performances and the event.“

It’s always special to photograph your own child and kids of other parents in the community,” said Halinda. “I’m going to miss, not only watching them dance, but also photographing them.”

Lee-Anne Kumka, president of the Fort McMurray Ukrainian Cultural Society, is organizing online Malanka celebrations through a get-together on Zoom. The cultural society is also posting videos from last year’s celebrations to Facebook.

“Typically, Malanka is a really awesome party,” said Kumka. “Maybe celebrations will look a bit different, but it still connects us to our family and the community we have here.”

Kumka hopes to keep the spirit of community in the New Year with online activities planned for the Ukrainian community. Traditional crafts as well as Ukrainian dance classes will be available in the coming weeks.“

We’re hopeful we will be able to gather together again but we’re doing what we can in the meantime,” said Kumka. “Malanka is about reaching out to your family and friends and we can still do that even if we can’t be together.”

Sarah Williscraft, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Fort McMurray Today