I remember my first Ukrainian Christmas. Olga and I were not married yet. Although I had met her parents earlier in the summer, visiting Toronto for a weekend, the occasion would be my initial introduction to Olga’s brother, Bohdan. For those unaware, Ukrainian Catholicism follows the Julian calendar meaning Christmas Eve is January 6 and Easter occurs on the same day as the “English” version only every few years. The difference has a distinct advantage for mixed couples – you don’t need to split the holiday between parents.
That first Christmas was an important early lesson in the Ukrainian language. Bohdan took me aside to teach me a critical word: veen (my phonetic spelling). It translates as “him”. He explained that when you hear it spoken among the guests who have arrived, you know they are talking about you. I have kept my ear open ever since.
Christmas Eve was also my introduction to the Ukrainian Church. The Kordan family was enjoying the evening, listening to a special broadcast, entirely in Ukrainian, words and songs, all Greek to my ears, as Olga’s Mom was preparing to attend midnight mass. It was apparent no one would be joining her and I was told she would get there by public transit. I found it odd she would go alone, and given my car habits considered the subway/bus alternative as particularly onerous; so I volunteered to accompany her, driving my vehicle. (Or maybe I was subconsciously attempting to endear myself to Olga’s parents?) Everyone else looked at me with puzzlement, shrugged their shoulders and away we went.
I was clueless, with no idea what would happen next. There were no seats available at the church, so we stood in the balcony for the two hour service, entirely in Ukrainian, with vaguely familiar elements, parishioners constantly making the sign of the cross, always in threes, from beginning to end, until the final “Ameen” which concluded the service. I have not participated in the Ukrainian Christmas Eve mass since.
That Christmas would be the first gift exchange between Olga and myself. My present was a wooden candle holder, capped with hurricane glass, which, somewhat coincidentally, resembled the CN Tower. The piece was retained for several years before it found its way to Value Village. Olga, on the other hand, decided to learn the art of knitting and spent numerous weeks creating a beautiful scarf for me. It is a three feet long, six inch wide, variegated pattern of brown, white and grey thick yarn, making it the warmest wrapping in the closet for my neck. It remains one of my most memorable gifts and the first choice for those cold winter days.
I remember our first “English” Christmas as a married couple, housed in our tiny apartment on Victoria Street in London, Ontario. The elfish tree was bought for five dollars from the A&P parking lot immediately behind our three story walk up, in direct view of our balcony. The only purchased decoration was the lighted circle of poinsettias serving as our topping; the small string of lights were a gift from my parents, and the decorations were hand made, teddy bears with cute red ribbon ties. Olga and I began our tradition of baking cookies by inviting my parents and brothers, Gary and Michael (Peter was not yet in London for the holidays) for a hilarious evening of dough and icing and beer.
Money was tight so we decided to limit our gift budget for each other to $10, not including tax. Even in 1983, the amount was a challenge if your desire was to purchase something of quality with lasting value. Olga appreciated antiques, be it furniture or pottery or jewelry. We had spent Sundays in Toronto at the antique market at Harbourfront and perused stores in London for bargains. I thought to find a treasure within the price range when I stumbled upon a delicate, eggshell, hand-painted tea cup and saucer. It was perfect, ringing in at $10.70 (seven percent sales tax).
I was proud of myself as Olga unwrapped the box, thrilled by the gift. It quickly found a place on the shelf of our antique wooden bookcase with the glass door and remains in our collection of fine pottery and dishware. Olga’s gift for me was a pair of vice grips; exactly what every practical guy needs. The memory will forever remain, unlike the tool which disappeared many years ago.
I remember the first Chirstmas without family gathered around the tree, last December, the year the Grinch made his attempt to spoil the season. The province had imposed strict limits for any kind of gathering making celebrating together, in person, both unadvisable and technically illegal. COVID was surging so the prudent decision was to celebrate virtually with family. Olga and I, however, wanted to add a little twist, try to include some fun, make the most of the situation. We purchased matching festive suits and visited our children’s homes as Mr. and Mrs. Santa Claus on December 24.
We met the two couples, Nicholas & Chiu, then Olena & Daniel, outdoors, at their respective homes and sang Christmas carols, identifying four in advance, requiring them to make a request for two more. We drank hot chocolate on the front porch of the first stop, vehicles driving past, honking their horns, and neighbours walking their dogs wishing us a Merry Christmas. At the next, we were treated to homemade snacks and baked goods on the back porch but not before singing a carol to the neighbours and handing out candy canes to the children.
The trip was also to deliver their present: a COVID survival box containing books, booze, puzzles, fake snowballs, a cowbell, his and her underwear (ooh la la!), a warm blanket and a waffle maker. We opened the respective boxes together while video conferencing Christmas morning, in our housecoats and pyjamas, with laughter and love. The items were ephemeral; the memories are forever.
I don’t know what I will remember from this Christmas, the circumstances are changing constantly. What was anticipated as a day approaching “normal” has evaporated with the exploding case count and concomitant announcements of restrictive measures to tackle the onslaught of omicron. As I write, the beautiful, dulcet voice of Harry Belafonte sings in the background, part of a lengthy play list of our favourite festive songs, secular and sacred. They are a reminder of the best of the season, a feeling that never grows old, a joyous spirit celebrated with the people you love, regardless of the Christmas present.
Here is wishing you a Merry Christmas, filled with friends and family in whatever manner possible; and may the day bring renewed happiness and memories to share and cherish this time again next year.