Friday, December 20, 2013

Christmas in Ukraine--100 Years Ago.

Christmas Eve Dinner in Canada, 1965

I have never been to Ukraine, my parents never went either.  I have to rely on what I have read--and I am very lucky that my late cousin, Julia Lawryk wrote an oral history of her mother, my great aunt, Katherine Rychly Pylatuik's life.  This is a great source of information about what life was like for my ancestors in Halachyna, (Galicia) 100 years ago.

Christmas and Easter were the most important religious holidays in Ukraine.  The Christmas season began with St Nicholas day, which was celebrated on December 18, according to the Julian calendar--which the Greek Catholic Church used at that time.  St. Nicholas visited the homes of the villages, bringing something for the children.  It was nothing like our Christmas because many of the people were poor and couldn't afford to buy anything for the children. I remember a visit from St Nicholas at the home of my grandmother in St Paul, MN. I was a little girl, and heard the talk of St Nicholas coming to the house, but when I saw him, I was so frightened that I started to cry.

Christmas in Ukraine was celebrated on January 7.  It was a major religious holiday, with a few traditional practices.  According to Katherine Pylatuik, instead of a Christmas tree, each family in the village made a "sneep"  which was a bundle of rye stems, tied up with a ribbon and decorated with flowers.  It was placed in a corner of the house and remained there for the holiday season. This bundle is also called a "did" or "didukh" in other areas of Ukraine.
The people went to church on Christmas Eve, then went home for a special meal.  The Holy Eve (Svyata Vechera) supper consisted of twelve courses, no meat was served.  The first course of the meal was kutia, a mixture of wheat, honey and poppy seeds, which was followed by borscht--beet soup, The third course was fish, then varenyky, known to Americans as perogi.  Kolach, a special bread,  served as stack of three braided round loaves, with a candle in  the top loaf. came next, followed by stuffed cabbage or holubtsi was served. Small stuffed buns and poppy seed  were also presented. Every course had symbolic importance.

Painting by Yaroslava Surmach Mills, showing carolers outside a home in Ukraine.

After the meal, the children and teenagers would go caroling in the village. My Aunt Katherine remembers caroling fondly.  The carolers would call on the houses in the village, one person would carry a pole with a star on top, represented the star of Bethlehem.  One person would carry a bag for the anticipated treats.  Traditionally, one person would dress as a goat. If a villager did not want the carolers to visit, they would knock on the windows as a signal for the carolers to go away.  Other families would invited them in, and the carolers would sing a song for every member of the family--even the youngest child.  Sometimes they  would present a skit which involved the goat.   When they finished singing, treats would be given to the carolers. The caroling ended with a short poem expressing well wishes for the family.  Katherine said that the memory of caroling always brought a smile to her lips and was unforgettable.

A postcard from the 1940's, showing carolers.  In the back of the group, you can see the person with the goat costume.

All the recipe cards are from a series of postcards published by the Surma Book and Music Company, New York, 1975.

"Ukrainian Christmas Traditions" published by risu, 5/1/2012
Christmas Eve photo from The Art of Cooking, Ukrainian Style, published by the "Lesia Ukrainia" Branch of the Ukrainian Women's Association of Canada, 1965

Katerina (Kasha) Autobiography of Katherine Pylatuik Lymar as told to her daughter Julie, 1988.