Thursday, 28 November 2013

Christmas is Coming

Surprisingly for someone who grew up in a Russian village, my babushka was not religious at all. Her lack of faith cannot even be fully explained by the fact that she was a post Communist Revolution child. Back then religion was "opium for the masses" and children were taught atheism rather than Christianity.

Still I would have expected to hear more about Christmas celebrations in the village. Especially as there are some serious traditions associated with it and the food which should be served. But nothing. I heard no stories of Christmas. Shrove Tuesday (Maslenitsa) - yes, Easter - plenty, but not Christmas. Maybe because for the Eastern Christians, Easter is a much bigger celebration than any other.  

Everything I learned about Christmas was through my university course in Kiev. You see, Western Ukraine, which was only annexed to its Soviet Eastern and Central bit in 1939 after the infamous Molotov- Ribbentrop Pact, preserved all the Orthodox and Greek Catholic festive traditions. So Ukrainians, certainly western Ukrainians, and we had plenty of them at my university course, were well versed in this big tradition.  
To start with, as the Orthodox and Greek Catholics still follow the Julian calendar, our Christmas falls on the 7th of January. And unlike their fellow western believers, Eastern Christians have another Lent for a few weeks before Christmas. No one is allowed to eat meat till the Christmas day itself. 

Which made it all rather difficult for the Soviet Christians, as the Soviet secular equivalent of Christmas, the New Year, was the biggest holiday of them all. And festive meals back home meant one thing - lots of meat! 

But a true believer had to fast till the very last day, so no festive food for the New Year's.

Instead on the Christmas eve a traditional meal of 12 dishes (to symbolise the 12 apostles) was served. No meat: just fish, salads, meat-free borsch, vareniki (a type of ravioli), uzvar (a sweet non-alcoholic drink make of dried fruit) and of course kutya.

Kutya - is a sort of sweet cous cous made of cooked wheat, honey, poppy seeds, raisins, nuts and dried fruit. 

I never really liked it. Probably because for some reason everyone was supposed to pass a bowl of kutya around and eat it from the same spoon. It always felt yuk-y to me. But I may try to make it this year, as it sounds much more tasty than I remember. 

There was supposed to be no alcohol and the festive eating could only start after the first star became visible in the dark winter sky. 

And then the singing would start. Kolyadki are traditional Ukrainian Christmas songs (not unlike carols) and they are sang by people going from house to house performing a mini Nativity show. 

My late Ukrainian literature professor used to do the proper Christmas meal at his flat, inviting any students who could be bothered to spend an evening singing kolyadky and then sharing the festive meal with him and his family. I never went. Now I wish I had... 

Here is a kolyadka for you. Slightly home-made and rather beautiful.

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