Westman residents honour Ukrainian Christmas

·5 min read

Westman residents kept Ukrainian Christmas traditions alive Thursday, with a busy day of preparing special feasts to honour Ukrainian Orthodox doctrines.

Very Rev. Mel Slashinsky, currently associate clergy at the Brandon Holy Ghost Ukrainian Orthodox Church, said Jan. 6 marks the beginning of the nativity season with a holy evening. Ukrainian Orthodox practices follow the Julian calendar which marks Jan. 6 on the Gregorian calendar as Christmas Eve.

The Ukrainian Christmas is a celebration centred on faith, religion and tradition, he said.

“We try very hard to not materialize the holiday or commercialize the holiday, we’re trying to keep it as spiritual as we can, and that, of course, comes from our traditions, our customs and our faith.”

It has been difficult to celebrate together in a traditional way during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“You have to do the best that you can with what you’ve got. Instead of the big family gatherings for the meal, maybe it’s just the household and maybe a close brother or sister that can come without having to travel great distances,” Slashinsky said. “It’s very much a family gathering rather than with a lot of friends and so forth ... it’s mostly families that take part in the supper.”

Christmas dinner begins after the spotting of the first star in the night sky symbolizing the star that came over Bethlehem when Christ was born. Some families mark the beginning of the evening by the head of the house bringing in a sieve of wheat from the harvest and placing it under an icon of the nativity of Christ.

Families will sing a hymn as a form of prayer and then they sit down and enjoy the bounty before them, marking the breaking of Fast of St. Philip.

“There’s always a lot of traditions and customs that go along with it. Some of them were brought with our forefathers from Ukraine and are still used,” Slashinsky said. “Unfortunately, some of them have sort of fallen by the wayside or are celebrated in a different manner.”

The feat includes 12 dishes, that in some traditions are prepared without butter, milk, eggs, sour cream or meat, to symbolize the 12 apostles chosen by Christ.

Each dish carries a different meaning during the supper, Slashinsky said, explaining every ingredient carries sacred meaning honouring God, purity and the stories of the Bible.

The supper can include dishes such as the first-course kutia boiled wheat with honey and poppy seeds, borscht soup, dumplings, kolach bread loaves fish, cabbage rolls, mushrooms and perogies.

“Families get together, like moms and dads and the children and grandmas and grandpas and so forth, brothers and sisters get together,” Slashinsky said.

Jan. 7 is used for public visitation and groups will depart from the church to carol at different houses.

“It serves two purposes: they come to the house, they carol for you and they sing. It’s like Christmas carols, and it’s to bring the news to the world, to bring the news to family’s that Christ is born, the saviour is here,” Slashinsky said.

The trips also serve as an opportunity to include people who are unable to attend services at church because the carollers come by the house to visit bringing with them peace and joy.

He added an older tradition followed by some families including Slashinsky’s, is to ensure when carolers come they never leave the house hungry or thirsty.

“It brings the joy of harmony and peace to the world,” he said.

The Ukrainian community is small in Brandon, he said, but they are united through their heritage and traditions.

The community follows the rules of what Christ has asked them to do: loving one and another and bringing peace, harmony and joy to the world. He said these messages are especially critical in today’s culture.

“This is our culture. This is our faith that we follow,” Slashinsky said.

Rosie Snyder, the owner of Rosie’s Country Café and Bakery in Minnedosa, was kept busy on Thursday preparing to-go orders for Ukrainian Christmas.

It is a popular holiday in the Minnedosa community, she said, and the restaurant sees people who are not even Ukrainian participate because they enjoy the holiday food.

Snyder has been helping prepare dinners for the special date since 2007, serving meals she learned to prepare from her Ukrainian parents.

Each dish is created with embodied knowledge, honouring traditions that have been passed down for generations.

Her mom and dad served Christmas dinner their entire lives and as a family, they never celebrated the English Christmas, Snyder said.

“It was always the Ukrainian one,” Snyder said, adding she appreciates she has been able to continue the tradition after the death of her parents. “After mom and dad passed away you know how the families can kind of break up. Since nobody wanted to get together anymore I said to heck with you guys I’m going to still keep up with the tradition.”

COVID-19 has affected the restaurant as groups are no longer able to gather in the communion of the day to celebrate filling the air with raucous laughter and joy.

“It changes a bit but you still stick with the tradition,” Snyder said.

In honour of Ukrainian Christmas, Snyder prepared a special to-go 12-course meal — it included three different types of perogies, mushrooms and other treats, finishing off with a cherry cheesecake dessert.

She estimates her cafe had around 50 takeout orders for Ukrainian Christmas.

“It’s a lot of work to prepare to do all the takeouts. You have different containers to put them all in,” Snyder said. “When we were open before I would fill the place up about three times.”

The restaurant can hold about 24 people each sitting and in the pre-COVID world, Ukrainian Christmas would see three seating in honour of the holiday.

She served dishes smörgåsbord style service so people could serve themselves.

A few of her cousins would take the late shift and they would be able to gather as a family to celebrate the season with carols and revelry.

“I just love that. Because back in the day they would go house to house, singing Ukrainian Christmas carols.”

» ckemp@brandonsun.com

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Chelsea Kemp, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Brandon Sun

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