The Taste of Something Sweet: A Small Ritual of Gratitude

As someone whose birthday falls ten days before Valentine’s Day, there were always a lot of red and pink decorations around the stores for my mother to draw inspiration from when decorating for my birthday; and I loved the lacy decorations, the red balloons, the hearts and roses. I still do. They are pretty and passionate and powerful and provocative, and I adore them, especially vintage cards and decorations and handmade tokens of love.

St. Valentine’s Day is also my “Name Day,” the feast day of the saint whose name I share. This is a tradition celebrated by many Ukrainians, and it can be tied to the feast day or birthday of various saints or martyrs. Valya is derived from Valentine, and I always felt a special connection to the saint whose mission was enabling and celebrating love.

I write many different things: some of them are grounded in the real world while others go to mythic places, some of them grapple with the darkness, many of them celebrate beauty. No matter what I am writing, I am a poet at heart and a Romantic. My writing tends to be sensual and descriptive, emotional and wonder-filled. I very much think in scenes and symbols.

Symbols are powerful because they give shape to ideas and emotions. They help us to imagine the possibilities, to manifest what we need by allowing us to visualize with intention. That is so much of what “magic” is—visualizing with intention. And as far as intention, we could definitely use more love in this world.

Viktor E. Frankl, whom I’ve written about before, wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning:

For the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth – that Love is the ultimate and highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love.

I know people dislike or have a love-hate relationship with this holiday. I understand that it’s complicated and muddied by the messages of the media, by toxic relationships we have lived through, by our personal struggles, and by systems put in place that have done irrevocable harm. There’s a lot there, and it’s important, and we certainly do not need to be told on this day, or any day, what love is or should be or how it should be celebrated.

I do think we all need love, however, and I choose to honor this day in that spirit, to see it as a day that remembers and celebrates the kind of love and optimism that Mr. Rogers talked about. For me, the way that he walked through this world with love and kindness embodies the heart of Valentine’s Day:

Deep within us—no matter who we are—there lives a feeling of wanting to be lovable, of wanting to be the kind of person that others like to be with. And the greatest thing we can do is to let people know that they are loved and capable of loving.  

From The World According To Mister Rogers

and

Love is like infinity: You can’t have more or less infinity, and you can’t compare two things to see if they’re ‘equally infinite.’ Infinity just is, and that’s the way I think love is, too.

FromThe World According To Mister Rogers

Some years this holiday has been happy or sad depending on what was going on in my life and in the world. There have been holidays hectic with kid-related activities, or deadlines and responsibilities that ate up all the time, or emotional heartaches and losses that left little room for optimism.

However, there is one thing I have always tried to do on Valentine’s Day, ever since my parents gave me a small heart-shaped box of chocolates when I was a girl. That Valentine’s Day so long ago, it was the only gift a lonely, disappointed, romantic girl received; and after I got over the feeling of being sad, I took the time to eat one of the chocolates, and it tasted like love.

Ever since then, this is my small, private ritual. On Valentine’s Day, I take a few minutes to savor the taste of something sweet on my tongue (preferably a piece of nice chocolate, but sometimes it’s been a sugar cube or a spoon of honey), and as it melts, I close my eyes and remember the feeling of love: of being loved, of loving wholeheartedly. Because love is a gift, and I am so very grateful. Thank you.

Happy Valentine’s Day.

(If you’d like to read more about the history, lore, recipes, and rituals associated with Valentine’s Day, I encourage you to check out this three-part article written by my friend, Katelan Foisy. Click here for more!)

Valentine by Katelan Foisy. You can buy them digitally on her website: https://www.katelanfoisy.com/market

Ukrainian Christmas Blessings

Much like Greeks, Russians, and other Slavic people, many Ukrainians (Orthodox and Catholic alike) celebrate Ukrainian Christmas today, according to the old “Julian” Calendar. 
WILLIAM KURELEK, Ukrainian Christmas Eve (1973)
We have always celebrated both Christmases in our family.  “American” Christmas was the festive holiday for Christmas movies, carols, and Santa Claus. We would watch the skies for signs of Santa while driving home from my Uncle Mike and Aunt Sophia’s, and my sister Nadya and I often fell asleep in the car before we even got home.
Ukrainian Christmas was the more sacred winter holiday for us, connecting us to family but also to our ancestors. Sviat Vechir (Holy Night) dinner on Christmas Eve night was at the heart of the holiday, and we would go to Baba Dudycz’s house with all the aunts and uncles and cousins. Baba had her tree decorated, and around the house hung several of Baba’s pavuky (more on the pavuk can be found here). The small house was filled with family, and it always smelled amazing–frying onions, baked bread, borshch, mushroom gravy, the sweet kutia. My cousins and I amused one another with stories and games as we waited, occasionally entertained by adults who took turns interacting with us or watching television with Dido in the front room.
After seeing the first star in the sky, we said a prayer and often sang a Ukrainian carol, then feasted on the traditional dishes.  I knew that Baba and my aunts were working in the kitchen, but I never really appreciated how much work it was until I prepared the dishes myself many many, years later. Baba and Dido Dudycz would beam as the meal began, so proud of their big, beautiful family; so happy to be sharing this treasured night.
There would always be a place set for our Beloved Dead, for our ancestors. The night felt like magic to me. I truly felt like our family from Ukraine would come to visit while we sat there, and I wondered which spirits from Baba and Dido’s lives back home made their way across the big ocean to visit with them, and with us.
There was never a doubt that some of them would come, that they could not be deterred by time or distance, because they were family; and where there is love, there is the most powerful of connections. If anyone could make a feast to entice the ancestors from “home,” it would be Baba.
Looking back, I realize that Sviat Vechir, even more than other rituals and holidays, formed my ideas about our relationships with our Beloved Dead; because even though I had not yet experienced a personal loss, I knew that after people died, they were not gone and forgotten. Like any relationship, we would have to work to nourish and maintain it. It was our job to remember and to honor them.
Many of my fondest memories are from the many years of Sviata Vecheria meals squeezed into that dining room around those long tables. This is also where I developed the idea that sharing a meal with loved ones is a sacred experience, and preparing food with intention is one of the greatest ways of showing love–because you could feel the love, taste the love in every bite of Baba’s cooking.
Baba 1987
Today the family has grown larger and spread out across the state, and even if we were able to all gather together (which is rare these days), there would be many faces missing from around that table. We’ve lost too many of our loved ones, and there is a hole in our hearts that is full of memories but still aches for them. But when my sister and I gather at my parents’ house, and my cousins gather with my aunts and uncles–the same traditional dishes are made with love, the prayers are said and carols may be sung, memories are shared, and our family who have died are with us. I have no doubt that Baba and Dido make every stop to see all of their family.
So when I put portions of every dish on the ancestor plate, I serve them before myself, and I whisper the names of the loved ones we have lost. The room, although not as full as Baba’s house, gets a little cozier, a little more full, and I know that they have come. Because we do get small miracles and moments of grace in this lifetime. I can feel them still beaming and loving us–because love is the most powerful of connections, and what is remembered, lives.
Veselyh Sviat. Христос народився! Merry Christmas.