Today is January 5 and my house was filled with the sound of Christmas carols, the scent of baking goodies, and the sight of Christmas wrapping paper scattered across the table as gifts are camouflaged.
Yes, like the rest of you, I did all of this a month ago. But now I get to do it again because January 7 is Ukrainian Christmas, and my husband’s family are taking their turn at decking the halls and gathering to celebrate Jesus’ birth.
I like this second chance. Around my neighborhood, trees have been discarded along the curb and colored lights no longer twinkle on porch rails. People have long-ago written their thank-you notes, and the gifts have found places in cupboards and drawers. They’ve moved on to “normal” time–even though Christmas time hasn’t officially ended yet.
The Ukrainians who follow the Julian calendar of the Byzantine Rite Catholic Church are just revving up. At this point, their gifts are still unopened, and dinner menus are still being planned.
For George’s family, the menu varies little; it’s only who does what that is determined each year. The foods contain no meat, since their pre-Christmas time is more penitential than the Advent of my Latin Rite Catholic Church. With all the other traditional, festive foods that appear on the table, the lack of meat isn’t noticed.
What they WILL notice, however, is the jello-pretzel salad I contribute, elbowing its way brashly onto a table with its decidedly American flavor.
The meal will begin with a beet soup called борщ in Ukrainian (borscht, or a variant thereof, in other languages) which is poured over small dumpling-type knots, whose name I can neither pronounce nor spell. Good thing neither is required to enjoy the eating!
There are other little pockets of a noodle-like consistency filled with seasoned mashed potatoes or sometimes cabbage; rolled cabbage leaves filled with mushrooms and onions; and fish with tomato sauce. Crepes are folded over sauteed mushrooms, breaded and fried to a golden brown; and bread, slightly sweetened, with citron or raisins. This is usually baked in a cylindrical pan.
Each place setting includes a small dish of something that’s part sauce, part pudding, part relish. It’s made up of cooked barley, honey and poppy seeds–and perhaps other things I’m unaware of–which represent foods that are grown in Ukraine. It’s a symbolic, visible tie to the beleaguered land of which they are very proud.
In the center of the table, a three-pronged candelabra, decorated with designs unique to Ukraine, contains three candles for the Blessed Trinity–Father, Son and Holy Spirit. An empty plate represents the presence in spirit of my late father-in-law and other family members who have died.
Everyone will gather around the table and my mother-in-law, as matriarch, says the blessing in Ukrainian. Then comes my favorite part: she invites them to sing a carol. They launch into a traditional Ukrainian song, in that language, of course. The melody is quickly enriched with spontaneous harmony from this very musical family, and I, who can neither speak Ukrainian nor do unrehearsed harmony, will simply close my eyes and enjoy.
Then, as chairs are pulled out, they announce “Christ is Born!” to each other, which is the usual Christmas greeting. After much practice, I’ve learned to say it–but not to write it out. And since their language uses the Cyrillic alphabet, it’s hard to improvise.
I like that greeting. It’s in present tense, as my mother-in-law pointed out. Christ IS born, he IS here, now, always. It’s a true religious greeting, somehow more spiritual than our “merry Christmas.”
As an aside, however, I’ve recently learned that our “merry Christmas” is also more spiritual than we know. Originally, “merry” did not convey a sense of “jolly or mirthful.” It meant something more like “blessed, peaceful”–a deep down kind of inner joy rather than revelry.
As I read recently in “The Little Blue Book of Advent and Christmas”:
“One gets a sense of its original meaning in the well-known carol, ‘God rest ye merry, gentlemen.’ As can be seen from the comma, the word is not used to describe ‘jolly’ gentlemen, but rather was a blessing from God invoked upon them–‘God rest ye peacefully, gentlemen.”
Thus, “Merry Christmas,” when spoken to one another, is a blessing.
Whether I say Merry Christmas or Christ is Born! I get to celebrate twice. I get to do it surrounded by my own American cultural trappings, and by ethnic traditions so very carefully preserved and treasured by the Ukrainian people who, despite living here, refuse to forget their roots.
I’m the richer for having both.