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.

The Power of Books: Helping to Rebuild Ukrainian Libraries

“But you can’t make people listen. They have to come round in their own time, wondering what happened and why the world blew up around them. It can’t last.” 
― Ray BradburyFahrenheit 451

Burning books–it’s a powerful metaphor for tyranny, censorship, and ignorance. From the burning of “heretical” books during the Spanish Inquisition to the burning of rare Sub-Saharan African medieval documents by Islamist insurgents in Mali last year, our history is full of examples of libraries and precious volumes being destroyed as one group conquers another or seeks to control the ideas and culture of a people.

In March of this year, Pro-Russian activists forced their way into public buildings in Kharkiv and Donetsk, Ukraine, and destroyed volumes of Ukrainian history, literature, and archival books, including some devoted to the Holodomor (the man-made famine imposed by Stalin’s regime in 1932-1933 that killed 7-10 million people).

Why burn them? Destroying books is an attempt to silence people and erase their past and their influence. Books hold stories and histories; they preserve language and traditions; they document people and places; and some of them are archival treasures. It hurts my heart to think of all that’s been lost in the destruction of libraries and archives around the world over time.

Referencing the destruction during WWII, in his  ‘Message to the Booksellers of America,” President Franklin D. Roosevelt wrote:

“Books can not be killed by fire. People die, but books never die. No man and no force can abolish memory … In this war, we know, books are weapons. And it is a part of your dedication always to make them weapons for man’s freedom.”

Books can touch people’s hearts, challenge their assumptions, sometimes change their lives. For me, the incredible potential of words is one of the main reasons I became a writer. Books are powerful. The right books can make ripples that change the world.

When I was growing up, like many Ukrainian American children of first and second generation immigrants, I was taught that it was my responsibility to learn the language and history of Ukraine, to do my part in the preservation of Ukrainian culture and traditions.

Most of us growing up in the Ukrainian Diaspora knew that so much was suppressed and destroyed in Soviet Ukraine, and we watched the efforts of our elders to safeguard all they could of Ukraine’s history and culture. This is why the Ukrainian National Museum (UNM) was created back in 1952 in Chicago.

The Ukrainian Diaspora has been closely watching events unfolding in Ukraine. As soon as word spread about the books being burned in Kharkiv and Donetsk, the UNM began to immediately collect Ukrainian language books to replace all that was lost.

Photo courtesy of the Ukrainian National Museum.
Photo courtesy of the Ukrainian National Museum.

“People have been very generous and donated family collections of books. We have 50 filled boxes,” explains Anna Chychula, UNM Administrator. “Now we need help to fund the cost of shipping.”

The UNM  has launched a crowd-funding project to cover the cost of sending the books to Ukraine and hopes to raise $5000. They’ve chosen Razoo.com, a fundraising platform for registered nonprofits. The beauty of crowd-funding is that every contribution helps. For those interested in participating, the campaign is explained on their Razoo site: http://www.razoo.com/story/Books-Matter-Replace-The-Burned-Books-In-The-Kharkiv-Library (or click on the widget below):

All the leaves have gone

It is my favorite season, time to harvest and prepare for Winter. I always look forward to it, but this has been a particularly challenging Autumn.

I found out my grandmother’s brother in Ukraine died tragically in a fire today as he sat beside the stove for warmth. He survived the Holodomor, WWII, Siberia, and the Soviet Union. He was reunited with my grandmother when she returned to Ukraine in the 90s for her first visit since leaving in the 40s. They corresponded by letter and rare phone calls when he would go to a neighbor’s house to use the telephone. My grandmother sent photos of her children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren. He was a widower, never had children, and lived alone.

I always hoped that I would meet him on a future visit to Ukraine. I worry about what this may do to my grandmother. I know that it’s a gift that she’s still here. Incredible that all of my grandparents are still alive, in their 80s and 9os. (knock on wood)

The elders are dying, and many of their stories will die with them. I hope that he had someone to talk to, someone to listen to him. It hurts my heart to think that he died in such a way. Alone.

Life is so fragile. So much dies in Autumn.