Today is Ukrainian Christmas Eve and brings me fond memories of my Baba and Gigi and gives me lots of reasons to call my Mom. January 7th is celebrated on Christmas Day by the Eastern Orthodox Church because they follow the Juilian Calendar in which the 12 days of Christmas began on December 25th. Traditionally, January 6th is a day of fasting ending in a meal of 12 meatless dishes beginning as soon as the first star rises in the evening sky.
My Baba and Gigi both emigrated from the Ukraine in 1913. My mom was born in 1944 and raised with many Ukrainian traditions and both Baba and Mom passed some of these traditions on to me and my sister. Our Christmas Eve was celebrated on December 24th (as this was easier for both my dad’s work schedule and our school schedules plus was easier to understand as kids) but did include a feast of 12 meatless dishes (no meat, eggs or dairy). My early memories include stockings with an orange in the bottom; straw under the dinner table to signify the manger; candy hidden in the straw for an after dinner hunt; no lights with the dinner table lit by candlelight only; throwing Kutia (grain and poppy milk) onto the ceiling to see if it sticks (signifying a good year of crops); saying the Our Father before the meal; and a plate with a single slice of bread on the table to remember the loved ones who are no longer with us.
The Traditional Meal
There are variations on the 12 meatless dishes but our meal always included perogies and cabbage rolls which everyone associates with Ukrainian meals. Kutia was made for throwing on the ceiling and for eating but was never one of my favorites. Beets could be in the form of borscht to start the meal or pickled and there were always pickles on the table made with lots of garlic and dill. There were always two or three fish dishes – a breaded cod or other white fish, pan-fried or breaded shrimp and pickled herring plus pan-fried mushrooms, and peas or corn (sometimes both). The dessert I remember was fruit, sugar cookies or shortbread, but my mom also says that Baba always made Kruschiki which are twisted bows of sweet dough covered in powdered sugar. We always had tea with dessert.
My mom continued the traditional meal on December 24th and it was the first time that our Jeff and my parents celebrated a holiday together. My mom modified the 12 meatless dishes over the years to include Drahli (aka Studenetz, Kholodets, Head Cheese all which are really jellied pigs feet) which my mom and Jeff’s dad were the only two to eat. She also added either Kubasa or Ham or both to accommodate Jeff and his lack of vegetable enjoyment. My mom still cooks this meal for my sister and her family and we continue to cook it here in Vancouver. We have gone back to the traditional date of January 6th because it allows us to invite close friends to share with us that are busy with their families on December 24th.
Our meal today includes: pickles and pickled beets (which I made a month ago); kubasa (shipped from Winnipeg); potato and cheddar perogies, sauerkraut perogies and cabbage rolls (made by Jeff and I yesterday), ham, sage and cranberry carrots (my contribution to the traditional meal) and fruit compote for dessert. The only bought item is the wafers that go with the fruit (thanks to Euro Food on Bidwell St). Not quite 12 dishes and not quite meatless but a damn good attempt at tradition. And what has now become our tradition!
Note: The reference to calling my mom more often is because many of my baba’s and mom’s recipes are not quite exact – a pinch of this, a pail of that, until it is the right texture – are a little hard to follow. How big is a pail? This require lots of long distance conversations with my mom. Thank goodness for free shaw to shaw calling! We have a few laughs, remember some good memories and I eventually get the recipe right.