Wish I'd Said It

Weeds are flowers too - once you get to know them.

- A. A. Milne

Friday, December 21, 2007

Some Christmas Memories (Issue #159)

When I was a child I was considered the luckiest kid in my class, at least once a year. Every January, around the 6th or 7th, I got to take the day off school - for a sort of religious holiday.

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.

27 comments:

Elizabeth Guy said...

Buttermilk/mushroom/onion gravy AND rye whiskey! I want to go to your Memory Theater for the holidays.

Hilary said...

That was tha bast!

Anonymous said...

These memories were certainly worth the wait.

Frank Baron said...

Elizabeth, you'd have been welcome. My grandparents would have sooner lived in a city than let someone go home hungry.

Thanks Hilary. :)

Thanks anon. :)

Reb said...

Oh, I can see the Sepia Curtains...wonderful memories Frank. Thanks for sharing them. It reminded me that was taught how to paint Ukrainian Easter Eggs (Pysanka?), maybe I should go find some dye.

Frank Baron said...

Thanks for the kind words Reb. (I cheated with the Ukrainian eggs by using stencils. Don't tell anyone.)

MagnoliaGirl said...

Ahhh, Frank,

These are sweet, sweet memories. I was right there with Grandma drinking and tapping my feet to the music!

And a Merry Christmas and Prosperous and Happy 2008 to you and yours!

Sandra

Frank Baron said...

Thank you Sandra. I wish you and yours the same. :)

Hildegarde said...

That's a very very beautiful story (and memories) ! And btw I didn't know about the Ukrainian community in Canada (but OK, what do I know :-) , interesting !! That there were so many relatives, so much talking and so much warmth, is also something I remember from the christmas gatherings at my grandma's when I was a kid. Have a merry christmas and my very best wishes for a wonderful new year !

Frank Baron said...

Yes Hildegarde, Ukrainian immigrants had a very large role to play in Canada's development as a nation, particularly in settling the Prairies.

Thanks for stopping by. It's been too long since I've seen your wonderful photos.

I'm going to fix that right now. :)

Editor said...

Merry Christmas to you,
hope you will consider a mutual link after the holidays.
Thanks for coming by.

Lois Karlin said...

Your childhood feast days sound idyllic. The constant hum of conversation...I used to envy friends with large families for that. And thanks for sharing. Makes it come alive for all of us. Happy happy holidays.

-Lois

Frank Baron said...

Hi Editor, I'll probably take you up on that.

Thanks Lois. Same to you and yours. :)

Ironside said...

Brought a tear to my eye.

Frank Baron said...

Was it the mountain of mashed potatoes and perogies, Ironside? ;)

Happy New Year to you.

Terrie Farley Moran said...

Oh, Frank, this is just the greatest blast from the past for me.

My ex-husband is Ukrainian on his mother's side. His grandmother, born in the Ukraine, was the best cook I ever met. My mostly Irish-American children celebrated the Ukrainian Christmas through out their childhood, long after Grandma Helen was gone, and were always happy to explain why the family tree was up so long: "No, no, not Little Christmas, it's the Ukrainian Christmas."

Thanks for showing me how special that is from a child's viewpoint.

And, hey, how about those Easter Eggs????

Terrie

Frank Baron said...

Hi Terrie. Glad you enjoyed. Thanks for letting me know and for sharing your memories too. :)

Othmar Vohringer said...

Thanks for your Christmas wishes which I return to you and yours with the best wishes for your future. Also thank you for sharing your Christmas memories, as it so happens my wife likes Ukrainian art, especially egg painting.

-ov-

Frank Baron said...

Othmar, I've long suspected your wife had uncommonly good taste. :)

Kappa no He said...

That could sooo be a movie. "Joy Luck Club" eat your heart out.

Gigi means grandfather in Japanese too. Baba, grandmother. Cool, huh?

Frank Baron said...

Very cool indeed Kappa. :)

Crabby McSlacker said...

Wow, I never thought I'd find myself saying: Damn, I wish I were Ukrainian.

Sounds like a wonderful tradition and if I were you I'd miss it too. A beautiful family portrait, too, thanks for sharing that.

Travis Erwin said...

Great stuff. You made me nostalgic and I've never taken part in such a gathering..

Frank Baron said...

Thanks Crabby. Thanks Travis. Happy New Year to you!

Stace said...

That all sounds like tremendous fun... far better than my childhood Christmasses. I remember one year we went to a holiday house co-owned between my father and his brother... we didn't actually see that side of the family, but we left each other cheap crappy gifts on the table, and we were all equally disappointed! Not long after that, my parents decreed that there should be no driving nor any cooking at Christmas - home and simple food, with just the four of us, was fine. We've continued in that tradition, bringing various boyfriends/girlfriends back to mum and dad's place each year, until this year - I'm in my own home with Aidan, and my brother is in Japan with his girlfriend.

As for regions, we've got them too... you can be "up north", or "far north", or "east coast" or "west" or "central"... we're big, so we have lots of regions that cover lots of ground, but there's not much actually in them! Once you get to "far north" or "west", you've pretty much got dust.

the Bag Lady said...

Frank, having just celebrated Christmas with a half-Ukrainian family, and enjoyed the cabbage rolls and perogies, as well as living way out 'Wast', the Bag Lady knows exactly what you're talking about.
This also took her back to the family reunions with her father's family way back when. Although they were held in the summer, the essence of conversation and music are inextricably woven into those memories. Thanks for that, and Happy New Year!

Frank Baron said...

Stace, our "dust" (aside from summer on the prairies) is white and cold. :)

You're welcome BL. Glad you enjoyed and thanks for stopping by. :)