Thursday is Christmas for folks who follow the Julian calendar, and the day is even more special in Winnipeg this year.

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Thursday is Christmas for folks who follow the Julian calendar, and the day is even more special in Winnipeg this year.

A new book that focuses on Ukrainian Christmas -- many people on the Canadian Prairies who celebrate Christmas on Jan. 7 are of Ukrainian ancestry -- and a new CD of Ukrainian carols by a Winnipeg duo add to this year's festivities.

The holiday celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ, the same way Dec. 25 does, but it has some basic differences, says Orysia Tracz, author of First Star I See Tonight: Ukrainian Christmas Traditions ($49.95, Mazepa Publications).

Gift-giving has become a hallmark of Christmas in North America -- the emphasis on presents become a turnoff for some who complain of the commercialization during the buildup to Dec. 25.

"It's quite different from the North American Christmas that's presents under the tree and Santa and gimme, gimme," Tracz says of the Jan. 7 holiday.

Sisters Rosemarie (left) and Charlene Todaschuk sing carols in Ukrainian.

JASON HALSTEAD / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Sisters Rosemarie (left) and Charlene Todaschuk sing carols in Ukrainian.

"Ukrainian Christmas is about the Christmas Eve dinner, and there's a reverence and a spirituality about it and antiquity.

"For Ukrainians, no matter what generation, in Canada, the U.S. or wherever they are, people do this because they want to and it's something special that you feel you need to do; it's not somebody telling you to do this."

Tracz has also felt the need to uncover many Ukrainian Christmas rituals. First Star is a compilation of 40 years of her articles on Christmas that began with one for the Winnipeg Free Press in 1973 and has continued on for the Ukrainian Weekly, a New Jersey-based newspaper that caters to North Americans interested in the eastern European country, its people and its culture.

"I've been interested in Ukrainian customs ever since I was a kid," says Tracz, who arrived in North America as a refugee with her parents shortly after the Second World War and moved to Winnipeg in 1968. "I was always interested in why we do these things, because a lot of them are pretty strange for contemporary life.

"Usually the answer would be 'Because' or 'It's always been like this.' I always wanted to know the why or the because."

One of those customs is carol-singing. The Todaschuk Sisters, Rosemarie and Charlene, have spent many hours over the years wandering from home to home singing the songs of the season, either the English ones most of us know by heart, or the Ukrainians ones, which aren't so well known.

The duo sing jazz most of the year, but got enough requests for a carols CD they got together during the heat of the summer and recorded The Spirit of Ukrainian Christmas With the Todaschuk Sisters, which came out over the holidays and was launched with a performance at McNally Robinson Booksellers last Saturday.

"These are the carols that our grandparents sang and remind us of the Christmases we spent with our parents," said Rosemarie, who lives in Winnipeg (Charlene has made her home in Montreal).

The Todaschuks sing in Ukrainian and are accompanied by accordions, violins and guitars. Rosemarie says it's a different sound compared with other Ukrainian carol performances.

"There are a lot of choral CDs, but they're with elaborate arrangements," says Rosemarie, who also teaches in the English-Ukrainian bilingual program at R.F. Morrison School in Garden City. "We kept the harmonies simple."

The CD includes songs with titles translated into English, such as God Eternal, The News in Bethlehem and The Bright Star in the Heavens.

"It's a tradition we hold on to strongly," Rosemarie said. "(The carols) are still big on Dec. 24 and 25 and we still have the 12 dishes and remember some of the symbolism."

The 12 meatless and non-dairy dishes -- they include Ukrainian staples such as cabbage rolls, perogies and borscht, which have become culinary mainstays on the Prairies any time of year -- are a key component of Ukrainian Christmas Eve celebrations, no matter where the celebration is held, Tracz says.

While the number of dishes is traditionally thought to reference the 12 apostles, Tracz's research found the Ukrainian Christmas traditions followed today go back to pre-Christian times.

The 12 dishes correspond to the lunar cycle, she says.

"Christmas all over the world, before it was Christmas, it was a celebration of winter solstice," Tracz says. "So for many centuries, and even now, you celebrate the birth of Christ with all this extremely old stuff, which has nothing to do with the birth of Christ. But it's part of the tradition."

Tracz recalls in First Star some of the static she received from those early articles -- they sometimes clashed with readers' perceptions -- but says she's had many supporters of her work from around the world who couldn't wait for her book.

"Wherever I went, people would say, 'Put the stuff into a book because I'm tired of taping the old newspaper clippings,' " Tracz says.

"What's really funny is I'm finally retired and I have time, supposedly, and I finally (wrote the book).

"After, I sent a friend in Ottawa news about the book, and the reply I got was, 'So now I can recycle all the old newspaper clippings that I've been saving?' "

 

alan.small@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @AlanDSmall

Alan Small

Alan Small
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Alan Small has been a journalist at the Free Press for more than 22 years in a variety of roles, the latest being a reporter in the Arts and Life section.

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