Merry Christmas > Ukrainians celebrate

Culture, costumes and ethnic cuisine, it’s all part of today’s colourful Ukrainian Christmas celebration.

For thousands of Winnipeg residents of Ukrainian descent following the Julian calendar, January 7 brings an occasion to mark the birth of Christ more than a week after most of us have put away our yuletide decorations. It’s a spiritual day, largely without gifts and more about meaningful family gatherings.

With a 12-course meal and traditional old-country clothing, Daria Zmiyiwsky and family spared no effort last night to celebrate Ukrainian Christmas Eve.

“It’s such an incredible night and so rich with tradition,” Zmiyiwsky said before gathering with her family and friends, about 30 in all, at a relative’s home. “Everybody comes dressed in Ukrainian costumes. We have a lot of ceremonies we go through.”

Before digging into a feast of a dozen meatless dishes as part of Ukrainian custom, the Christmas Eve ceremonies include a skyward gaze, led by children, to find the “first star”, a sign the traditional meal can begin.

“They’re following the star, that’s the correlation,” Zmiyiwsky said. “We look for the star, and the star is the resemblance of the birth of Jesus Christ.”

Traditional carols such as Boh Predvichnyj, Ukrainian for “God eternal,” may precede the meal, which is led off by one of the elder male family members carrying a sheaf of wheat, or “didukh”, three times around the house before laying it in a corner. That’s what Zmiyiwsky describes as a “representation of the people who have died” in the family, to honour them during the feast.

“It’s symbolic of our ancestors and it represents food, the wheat crops,” said Evhan Uzwyshyn, who carried the sheath and its “grandfather spirit” for his family while wearing a traditional embroidered shirt.

The meal might take 90 minutes to eat, and for good reason. The dozen courses include boiled jellied fish, kapusta soup and pickled herring and are led by kutya, a mix of poppy seeds, wheat and honey.

Keeping this celebration together is a growing concern as the adults grow older, hoping their kids won’t lose the Ukrainian Christmas Spirit as years go by.

“What about our ancestors? What about the people who taught us these traditions? We can’t forget them. We have to make sure our children know about these people and how hard they worked,” Zmiyiwsky said.