Thursday, January 7, 2010

Ukrainian Christmas - Tradition and Connection to the Past

Happy Orthodox Christmas.

I am half Ukrainian and so today was kind of my Christmas – or my second Christmas, as I used to say when I was a child. Many of my friends used to think I was incredibly lucky to have two Christmases instead of one – that is until I told them that Santa Claus didn’t come twice. Despite that, I think I am lucky. Not because I have two Christmases. But because Ukrainian Christmas is one of my favourite times of year.

Our Ukrainian Christmases (as I believe is the case for Christmas in the Ukraine) was very focused on tradition. We had a number of things that we did every year. This included having a 12 course meal on Christmas Eve, which started with a dish made from poppy seeds called kutya. Some of the other children detested this dish. But tradition was that you had to eat at least some of it. So they would take the tiniest bit possible – and still take double as long to eat it as everyone else. I didn’t mind the kutya. But there were dishes I did not like. And you were meant to eat a little bit of at least each dish. (Mind you, the rules were not too strict on this, as my English mother did not like many of the dishes on the table. Plus, another tradition was that the dishes must be vegetarian – which for Ukrainian cooking means a lot of cabbage. And my mother cannot eat a lot of cabbage. So as she couldn’t eat every dish, she didn’t make us eat every dish either.

Despite the relaxed rules, it was hard to avoid eating a lot, with my grandmother constantly telling people to eat. Even the dead had food put in front of them. On the table there was a candle, with photos of those who had passed away leant against it. A plate was put in front of these photos so that a meal could be given to them as well.

The reason I am speaking in past tense here is because my grandmother is now too sick to prepare the Christmas Eve meal. And unfortunately, there are many Ukrainian dishes that I may never eat again. I know I will never have a Ukrainian Christmas Eve meal again.

But anyway, this isn’t a post about how much I miss my grandmother’s cooking. It is a post about tradition and connection to the past.

I have never been to the Ukraine. I may never go. Yet there is a very strong connection between me and that country. Not just through blood – although this is part of it. But through tradition. For every Christmas and every Easter, I would do the same things, eat the same food and hear the same words as the people in the Ukraine were doing now and had done for many years.

And that creates a bond. A bond cannot be formed by simply being part of a family or sharing a common interest. A bond is formed through doing the same things together. And even if I am on one side of the world and someone else is on the other, there is a bond between us, for we share the same traditions and practices.

One thing that I continue to do is go to the Ukrainian Christmas Mass. There was a part of me that loved the Ukrainian Christmas Mass when I was a child and part of me that couldn’t stand it. Because it is all in a different language. Although I started learning Ukrainian as a child, my father insisted I give it up. He thought it was not a useful language. Today I took my children to Ukrainian Mass for the first time. My son turned to me at the beginning and said ‘I don’t understand what he’s saying.’ I said, ‘That’s okay. Neither do I.’

I wish I did. For I disagree with my father. Ukrainian is a useful language. Maybe not for getting a job or achieving success. But it is useful nonetheless. For it would be one more connection with the Ukraine. It would be another bond between me and the country where my father and grandparents came from and my ancestors lived for centuries. It is not only success in the present that is important. Connection to the past is also important.

Yet despite not understanding it, it is still a beautiful Mass. And perhaps even more beautiful for the fact that I do not understand it. I must simply be there. And sometimes I think we place too much emphasis on thinking, and not nearly enough emphasis on just being present in God’s presence.

It’s hard to say why a connection to the past is important. I can’t present you with a detailed argument that follows each point to a logical conclusion. But I’m not sure that the benefits of tradition are meant to be presented in such a way. Tradition, connection to the past, is not one side of a debate. It is simply part of us. None of us should be isolated beings, suspended in mid-air and mid-time. We are connected, both to the past and to the future. We are also part of something that is bigger than ourselves. And to understand those connections, to embrace them and to recognise their importance is to gain a better understanding of who we are. Rather than trying to prove that, maybe we should simply accept it.

Christianity also has many traditions. And some may say that those traditions are not important. But like the traditions of Ukrainian Christmas, those Christian traditions also remind us that we are connected to something. We are connected to the past. We are connected to the present. We are part of something larger than ourselves. When we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, we are not just doing something in memory of what Jesus did, a long, long time ago. We are spiritually connected to that event. We also form a bond with all the people who have celebrated the Lord’s supper, all around the world, both here and in the future.

Oftentimes people want to get rid of tradition because they see no reason for it. Unless it serves some practical purpose, why bother doing it? A bit like my father telling me I shouldn’t learn Ukrainian. But it is not only things that have a practical purpose that are of value. Sometimes the most valuable things are those that are not ‘practical’ at all. Then again, maybe they are practical, but just not in the way that the world defines practical. They may not do much to feed our bodies, but they do a lot to feed our soul.

Here is a picture of the Ukrainian Church I went to today. There was a beautiful picture of Mary and Jesus on the table, but unfortunately they changed it before I had a chance to take a picture.

Here is a picture of my sons and me outside the church. The one with the grumpy face is the one who complained that he couldn't understand the service.

And here is a Ukrainian Christmas Carol. If you don't understand what is being said, don't worry, neither do I.


  1. Wow, me and grumpy all the way . . . I made great use of that same basic look when I was his age.

    This was a great post, very nice.


  2. Hi Raven,

    I think all children have that grumpy look on their face from time to time - or in the case of my son, second to second - especially when photos are being taken.

    That was actually the third picture taken. The first two show me bending down trying to get him to smile. My aunt was taking the picture - and she has never used a digital camera before. So she wasn't sure what she was doing and was getting stressed, and then I was getting stressed. So in the end, I said let's just leave it.

    But it is funny now to have a photo with this grumpy look after the Ukrainian Christmas Mass. I probably wouldn't have put it up here if he was smiling. I should send it to my mother. She'll find it very amusing.


  3. Hi Liz,

    Outside of God-haters, the people I feel sorry for the most are those who reject tradition and say stupid things like, "If it isn't in the Bible, I'm not believing in it." (These people don't even know what's in the Bible anyway, so thatjust makes me feel doubly sorry for them).

    Tradition is one of the richest veins running through the Catholic Church.

    And the heart of the Catholic Church is definitely the Mass.

    In one sense, you've summed it up admirably by writing:

    "Yet despite not understanding it, it is still a beautiful Mass. And perhaps even more beautiful for the fact that I do not understand it. I must simply be there. And sometimes I think we place too much emphasis on thinking, and not nearly enough emphasis on just being present in God’s presence."

    St Leonard of Port Maurice wouldn't have put it better.

    David ...

  4. Hi David,

    I don't actually know who St Leonard of Port Maurice is. But thank you for the compliment - although I'm sure it's not deserved.

    I think tradition (and not just in religion) is one of those things that appears to have lost its value. Nowadays, it's all about change and progress. We want what's new - not what is old and tested. And it's hard to even explain to people why we should value tradition - well I find it hard anyway. Because many people just don't value the things that tradition gives us.

    One phrase I seem to see a lot is 'The church needs to change'. And maybe sometimes it does need to change. But if the only reason behind change is that we want the Church to progress and move forward or that the Church has to fit into today's world, then that's not a good reason.

    The Church shouldn't be changing to be like the world. The Church should be seeking to change the world. Otherwise, we end up with a Church that is indistinguishable from the world around it.


  5. Hi Liz,

    You're becoming more and more Catholic by the day.

    St Leonard of Pt Maurice was a Franciscan. He preached a famous sermon, 'The Little Number of Those Who are Saved.'

    He also wrote the book, 'The Hidden Treasure' which is all about the Catholic Mass and how to assist devoutly at it. It was obligatory reading when I became a brother.

    David ...

  6. Hi David,

    It's funny you say I'm becoming more Catholic, because there isn't much on this page that I wouldn't have written a year or two years ago.

    In fact, last Ukrainian Easter I also did a post that talked about tradition and probably sounded very similar to what I have written here.

    I have always valued tradition - even in the most progressive stages of my faith. And I have always had a problem with 'progress' - even when I would have considered myself progressive. Because I have never seen change for the sake of change as a good thing. I have always been strongly against changing to fit into the world. And I have also strongly rejected the idea that's what new is good simply because it's new.

    I think that confuses people. Many of the people I know probably thought of me as the progressive, liberal Christian in the past. And yet that was only ever half of the story. People see what they want to see, I think. They stick a label on you and want you to conform to their idea of what that label means.

    In February last year, at a birthday party, I was talking to a friend about something and he said, 'You're quite the traditionalist really, aren't you?' The only reason he could say that probably was because he is such a good friend. He could see all sides of me, not just one.

    Sorry for rambling on here. I hope you don't mind, but I think most of it wasn't actually a response to what you wrote. Just things I wanted to say - and this seemed like as good a place as any to say them. In fact, I have heaps more I want to say about this. (This comment was actually longer and I ended up deleting half of it.) I might need to do a post about it.




Bookmark and Share

Blog Patrol