As published in Starlight Compass
Christmas has always been my favorite time of year, but it is not just the gift-giving, twinkling lights, holiday movies, and cozy pajamas that make the season magical. Despite being a third-generation Canadian, my Ukrainian roots surface at Christmastime—a season steeped in tradition, with Christmas Eve being the pinnacle of the celebration.
Traditionally, Christmas Eve preparation began early in the day, starting with special care of animals—stables were thoroughly cleaned, and animals were given extra food and bedding. Once the animals were settled in for the day, preparation began inside the home. A sheaf of wheat was placed near the dinner table as a symbol of our ancestors who tilled the soil. The table’s centerpiece was made of three round, braided loaves of bread stacked one on top of the other, a celebration of agricultural prosperity. Other customs included scattering poppy seeds in the yard to ward off evil, and making a dent in the threshold with an axe to keep unwanted creatures from coming inside.
Although most Ukrainians today (my family included) do not go to such lengths on Christmas Eve, many other customs are still practiced. As with so many celebrations around the world, food plays a central role on Ukrainian Christmas Eve, and the meal is brimming with tradition and symbolism.
The appearance of the first star in the night sky initiates the Christmas festivities, and the feast may not begin until the star is spotted. Children gather around the window or head outside with hopes of being the first to spot the star.
Once the star has been found, it is time to gather around the table and give thanks for family and for the prosperous year that is coming to a close. A prayer is often said, and my family includes a chorus of the traditional Ukrainian Christmas carol, Bokh Predvichnay, before we begin the meal.
The meal is made up of twelve traditional dishes, and theories vary as to where this number came from. Some sources say the meal represents Jesus’ twelve apostles, whereas another theory is that the dishes represent the twelve months (or moons) of the year, but no matter which theory you side with, everyone at the table is expected to sample each dish.
The first dish served is kutya, a blend of boiled wheat, poppyseed, nuts, and honey. In recent years, I have substituted part of the honey for my homemade maple syrup and the results are simply splendid.
After kutya, borscht (beet soup) is served. Every December, I make a big pot of borscht, portion it out, and freeze it so I have delicious soup on hand throughout the year. Making it takes time, as carrots, celery, and potatoes must be chopped into small pieces. The beets in particular are interesting to work with and my kitchen (and hands) often look like a crime has been committed once all beets have been sliced. As the soup bubbles away and flavors coalesce, the most heavenly smells carry through my home.
Once borscht has been enjoyed, the other ten dishes are brought out and passed around. I make fresh pyrohy (perogies) special for the occasion, and when I’m at my parents’ house, we enjoy my mother’s homemade holubtsi (cabbage rolls). As Ukrainian Christmas Eve dinner is a meatless meal, we serve fish, and in the past few years, I have prepared a lovely maple-glazed salmon. I also make kolach (a braided loaf of white bread), and often a salad or green beans as a substitute for the more traditional mashed peas, because I simply cannot stomach mashed peas. Other dishes vary from family to family, but often include pickled herring and mushrooms.
Traditional dessert is stewed fruit and pampushky—donut-like pastries filled with prunes. I have never made pampushky but it’s a baking challenge that I would love to attempt one of these years.
After the meal is finished and everyone is stuffed beyond capacity, family members draw names to see who their dishwashing buddy is. This might be a modern tradition that my family created rather than a standard one that you will find in history books, but it is our tradition nonetheless. The table is cleared, leftovers are packed up (I always make extra kutya), and we set the ten-minute timer for dishwashing teams while the young and old visit in the next room, play games, or sneak chocolates from the open box on the table.
I am grateful for my heritage, the customs I learned from a young age, and the traditions I wish to pass along to the next generation. In our home, Christmas Eve is an important celebration all its own and Christmas would feel incomplete without borscht, pyrohy, and extra bedding for our pets.