Much like Greeks, Russians, and other Slavic people, many Ukrainians (Orthodox and Catholic alike) celebrate Ukrainian Christmas today, according to the old “Julian” Calendar.
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.
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.