Not a boring old, spend-half-the-day-at-church religious holiday. Nuh-uh. It was Ukrainian Christmas.
Say it with me: Back-to-back Christmases. Every year.
I can still taste the triumph as I reminded my friends I wouldn’t be in the next day. Their envy was palpable, even when I explained there would “only” be one gift under the tree for me at my grandparents’ and it was usually clothes. You could still colour them green even when Ukrainian Christmas landed on a weekend.
It was celebrated every year at my maternal grandparents’ farm, about 20 miles from where we lived. Gramma and Gigi were dairy farmers for the most part, though Gigi switched to raising beef cattle in his later years.
They were born Out West,* in Selkirk, Manitoba and moved to Ontario when my mother was in her late teens. Every year since I could remember, we’d gather at Gramma and Gigi’s a couple of weeks after the “big” Christmas to celebrate our smaller one.
Let’s part the sepia curtains and see what’s playing at Memory Theater this morning....
Gramma and Gigi lived on three different properties in three different houses within my memory. But the structures and colours seem fluid and meld into one another. The people and the smells and the laughter were the same though, so essentially there was only one farmhouse.
It was big. The rooms were all big. Only the gathering of the clan at Christmas could shrink them.
Tables were pushed end-to-end and followed the contours of the room. The kids sat at one end, the adults at the other. I remember my sense of pride when I realized I’d graduated somewhere around the age of 16.
The food. Oh my goodness, the food.
Big Baba, my grandmother’s mother and the family fortune teller, ladles doughnuts, poondiki (dough stuffed with dates) and other delicacies into, around, and finally - golden and delicious - out of, a large vat of hot oil.
To us older kids, cousin Linda, me, and my sister Theresa, she entrusts the critically important task of dusting the hot pastries with icing sugar.
Naturally, we felt it our solemn duty to taste-test the final products as soon as they’d cooled enough, before we could, in good conscience, put them on the dessert platters.
If it once mooed, clucked, oinked or quacked - it made an appearance on the table in some form or another - all of them delicious. They were accompanied by mountains of cabbage rolls, mashed potatoes and perogies. There were several different gravies, my favourite being a buttermilk/mushroom/onion concoction that elevated mashed potatoes to the hautest of cuisine.
Vegetables weren’t left out. Gramma grew many of her own in a large garden. It was just that there was rarely room on my plate for the beets, corn, turnip, peas and beans. Understandable really.
Gigi was about 5' 8" and approximately 225 pounds, barrel-chested and immensely strong. He could shoulder a cow to the left that was intent on going right. I always recall him with a twinkle in his bright blue eyes. He had the permanently ruddy cheeks of an outdoorsman.
He enjoyed a drink. Who the heck wouldn’t after working 14-hour days, seven days a week since he was 14? There were only three alcoholic beverages fit to drink in Gigi’s mind: beer, if it was summer, vodka or rye whiskey at all other times. The vodka was a salute to his heritage, the good old Canadian rye, to his heartland.
You had to be careful if Gigi was pouring the drinks. He only made them in two strengths: regular and Ukrainian. If you didn’t specify, you got Ukrainian - which meant four ounces of whiskey flavoured with a tablespoon of 7-Up. Regular would be three tablespoons.
Gramma was only an inch or two shorter than Gigi and about the same width. Her mission in life, and she took it seriously, was to feed people. At Ukrainian Christmas, she had to feed a LOT of people.
Besides my aunts and uncles and cousins, there were their cousins and aunts and uncles - many of them visiting from Out West. There were also places around the table for “the men,” the workers who lived permanently on the farm.
Like most traditional hostesses, Gram wasn’t all that visible at these feasts. She was forever fussing with something in the kitchen or getting up to fetch a forgotten morsel or to refill a platter.
She was about as huggable as a human can get.
At some point, probably after a couple of Gigi’s drinks, my Dad would sit at the piano and start playing. Sometimes Gigi would pick up his fiddle and play along. One year, and we have curled-up black and white evidence to prove it, Uncle Fred sat in on drums.
I remember noise - a constant hum of conversation or song or both - punctuated often with clinking glasses and raucous hoots of laughter.
It was family at its funnest.
It’s been about 25 years since the last Ukrainian Christmas at Gramma and Gigi’s. For a few years after their deaths, we had modest gatherings at my parents’ house which lasted until my mother’s death 13 years ago.
Today, the only acknowledgment might be in passing, during a phone call with a brother or sister. My kids sure never got the day off school.
But I’ve tried to pass along to them the essence of those Ukrainian Christmases and apply it to ours- that it’s not about the getting - it’s about the getting together.
Merry Christmas to all. Have a safe and happy holiday season.
*If you live in Canada, you live in a region. There’s Central, then there’s Down East, Out West, or North. For the authentic, Ukrainian-Canadian pronunciation of “west” try saying the “e” like the “a” in “apple.” Out Wast. Perfect.