The Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village is a major open-air museum operated by the Historic Sites and Museums Branch of Alberta Culture and Tourism. Located 50 km east of Edmonton the museum preserves more than 30 historic structures and interprets the lives of Ukrainian settlers in east central Alberta between the years of 1892 and 1930. Based on extensive contextual and site specific research, the museum is an important steward of the intangible cultural heritage of Alberta’s Ukrainian settlers.
Among the customs which the Village documents and observes is Christmas. As Byzantine Eastern rite Orthodox and Catholic Christians, Ukrainians celebrated Christmas according to the Julian calendar, which predated the introduction of the current Gregorian calendar. What is popularly referred to as “Ukrainian Christmas” is celebrated on January 7 rather than December 25. On January 6, Ukrainians celebrate Sviat Vechir (or Holy Evening, Christmas Eve) with a special meal. For the early Ukrainian settlers of east central Alberta as well as their descendants in urban settings, this was an evening filled with ritual and tradition, including pre-Christian agrarian elements.
The evening meal on Sviat Vechir would begin when the children in the family spotted the first star in the night sky. After it was spotted, the family assembled around the table and shared a prayer or carol. The patriarch of the family then brought the first of 12 Lenten dishes to the table. This dish is called kutia, a sweet dish made with boiled wheat, poppyseed, and honey. A spoonful of kutia might be thrown to the ceiling – the more kutia that sticks, the more prosperous the next year’s harvest would be. The other dishes enjoyed on Sviat Vechir included kolach (braided bread) , pyrohy (filled with potatoes, prunes or cabbage), borshch (soup), fish, beans, beets, mushrooms and stewed fruit.
After the meal, in many families, the children would search for nuts and candies in the hay that had been spread beneath the table as a remembrance of the manger where Christ was born. Families would attend a midnight church service if one was being held nearby.
On Rizdvo (January 7, or Christmas Day) the families would again feast. This time, their feast could include meat and dairy, as the pre-Christmas fast had ended. After Rizdvo, many families spent time visiting with family and neighbours.
As remembered by the Woywitka family, in the late 1940s and through much of the 1950s, Christmas on the farm in Smoky Lake County was a time of visiting for neighbours and relatives. One of the most memorable groups was the carolers. These were dedicated folks who travelled long distances between houses by horse and sleigh and kept their voices fresh despite the cold. They were welcomed at the homes they visited and were hosted generously with food and drink. In November of 2015 the Heffel Fine Art Auction House sold a William Kurelek depiction of Ukrainian Carolers crossing a snow-draped landscape by horse-drawn wagon for over $383,000. Kurelek is an Alberta born artist with Ukrainian-Canadian roots.
January 19 marks the Feast of Jordan (Iordan) which celebrates the baptism of Christ in the river Jordan and the end of the Christmas cycle. On this day, people would traditionally attend church where the priest would bless water for the congregation to take home with them. To celebrate Iordan, the Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village is hosting a special event on Tuesday, January 19, 2016. Plans include services in all three historic churches, an outdoor water blessing ceremony, and much more. For full program information, please visit www.ukrainianvillage.ca or call 780-662-3640 (dial 310-0000 for toll free access in Alberta). Stay in touch with the Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village at www.facebook.com/ukrainianvillage.ca
Written By: Pam Trischuk (Head, Education and Interpretation, UCHV), with additional content from Robin Woywitka (Cultural Land Use Analyst) and Peter Melnycky (Historian)