Drinking shots of vodka must have been how guests kept warm during a Christmas Eve dinner on a sub-zero winter’s night in the Ukraine.
Therefore, it makes perfect sense that one of the rituals at a Ukrainian Christmas Eve is for each guest to raise a vodka-filled shot glass, enthusiastically shout “Di Bozaj” (“To God”), then chug it all down in one fell swoop. Every January 6, Ernie Paskaruk and Marilyn Noland’s 12 guests get to partake in this ritual – one of many in their cozy Mexican casita – during their annual Ukrainian Christmas Eve.
For the past 20 years, Paskaruk and Noland have hosted a Ukrainian Christmas Eve during their six-month “snowbird” stay in Ajijic. Fortunately, none of their guests have to endure biting cold temperatures to experience the Ukrainian traditions the two feel so passionate about. Even though their casita is small, they manage to turn one of their bedrooms into a dining area, where all are seated comfortably around a long table. This year, the couple even made room for two new neighbors, bringing the count to an untraditional fourteen.
Paskaruk, who was born in Canada, has a Ukrainian mother and a Canadian father. “My mother was born in an area between the Ukraine and Poland. My grandparents moved from the Ukraine to Canada in 1920s. Both sides of my family homesteaded in Saskatchewan, where I was raised. Growing up in a small village, our family attended a Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, and I was an alter boy.”
Valuing his Ukrainian traditions, Paskaruk says, “We celebrate Christmas on the Julian calendar, and every year Christmas Eve falls on January 6th. New Year’s Day, or ‘Malenka’, falls on January 14th. Even though the Ukrainian Society of Toronto hosts a yearly New Year’s Eve dance, we’re starting to see some churches switching to the English calendar so that younger Ukrainians can celebrate along with the English holidays.”
Noland, who is Canadian, considers herself Ukrainian by osmosis. “As a young girl in Toronto, I was involved with the Ukrainian culture because I had close friends who were Ukrainian. From then on, I decided that I wanted a Ukrainian partner, and I got my wish.”
In the early 1980s, Paskaruk hired Noland to be a contract administrator in his Toronto office, where he sold T.V. transmitters worldwide. Nine months later, they started their new life together, and celebrated their first Ukrainian Christmas Eve the following month.
“Ernie had forgotten much about his culture when he moved from Saskatchewan to Toronto,” says Noland. “Suddenly, he didn’t have anyone to talk Ukrainian to. Shortly after we met, I suggested that we host a Ukrainian Christmas Eve. That was 30 years ago. We’ve been doing it ever since.”
Noland made it a point to learn everything about a Ukrainian Christmas Eve, including the 12 meatless dishes which represent the 12 apostles. “Going meatless symbolizes Mary and Joseph’s hardships on their journey to Bethlehem.”
Everything they serve is prepared from scratch, such as “kolach,” a round, braided egg bread that represents the circle of eternity, and “kutya,” a tasty gruel of cooked wheat, honey and poppyseed.
The meal begins when the youngest guest spots the first star in the sky. The leader recites a short prayer, then they move onto the first tradition: the family elder takes a spoonful of Kutya and throws it to the ceiling.
“If it sticks,” says Paskaruk, “we’ll all have a prosperous year.” That night, to everyone’s delight, it stuck.
Small bowls of Kutya are then served, followed by bowls of borscht, each with a floating “vushka” – a mushroom-stuffed pierogi in the shape of an ear. Paskaruk and Noland bring their picked and dried mushrooms from their Toronto home especially for this occasion.
Following shots of vodka, as guests are chatting and awaiting what comes next, plates of fish, pierogies, stuffed cabbage rolls, beans and mushroom sauce appear. A round, braided Kolach is set on the table, with a lit candle stuck in the middle.
Says Noland, “One of our traditions is to place a lit candle by the window for the stranger passing by to come in and share a meal.”
Another tradition is sharing food with the animals. In Ajijic, that animal happens to be their cat, Whitey. On their hobby farm in Ontario, they would take food out to their barn and feed their sheep, pigs, chickens, turkeys and barn cat.
Says Noland, “We also create an extra place setting for anyone who has died during the past year with the hope that they’ll join us during the night.”
At the end the meal, everyone sings Ukrainian carols, or whatever brings them into the holiday cheer.
Although Paskaruk and Noland chose not to have children, they have their affectionate cat and plenty of good friends, many of who look forward each year to their Ukrainian Christmas Eve. As long as the two keep returning to Ajijic, they’ll carry on this tradition. Di Bozaj!