Every year, Lisa Dusseault brings Ukrainian Christmas to Silicon Valley. In California, she says sadly, “frozen burritos seem to take the place of the Canadian-standard freezer space for perogies.” But Dusseault, a systems engineer from Edmonton who works on the Second Life virtual universe at San Francisco’s Linden Lab, agonizes annually over a 12-course, meatless, dairy-free dinner of the type Ukrainians traditionally eat on Jan. 6, the eve of their nativity. She makes perogies from scratch, soaks wheat for kutia pudding, prays the cabbage rolls won’t fall apart, and invites friends over when it’s all assembled.
Yet this busy chef has no Ukrainian ancestry. “My mom adopted Ukrainian cooking from living in northern Manitoba, from her neighbours,” says the French-Scottish-Canadian Dusseault. When she was a child, her family enjoyed a Ukrainian Christmas feast every year because her mother believed that “everybody should be able to adopt the culture of their choice.”
The term “Ukrainian Christmas” is a bit of a misnomer; Orthodox believers of several nations still observe the Julian date of the nativity. But to Western Canadians, particularly those raised in the great belt of Ukrainian settlement that hugs the border of the boreal forest, it’s a misnomer that is built in. On the prairie, Ukraine effectively enjoys founding-nation status, and you don’t have to be Ukrainian to participate in Ukrainian Christmas.
Schools in Ukrainian capitals like Vegreville, Alta., honour the Nativity as a matter of course; at the town’s A.L. Horton Elementary, for instance, the halls resound with Ukrainian carols after students are treated to a nut-free version of the 12-course feast. Meanwhile, in some homes, Ukrainian touches are considered essential to the Gregorian Christmas. “I have never had a Christmas Eve without cabbage rolls and garlic sausage,” says Camrose Canadian editor Vince Burke, an Irishman with one Ukrainian grandmother. He came unnervingly close in 2010; when grandma’s back went out, the Christmas menu was saved by a timely bake sale at the city’s Ukrainian Catholic Church.
For those who insist on total authenticity, the Taste of Ukraine restaurant on Edmonton’s Jasper Avenue does an annual sit-down version of the full Ukrainian Christmas feast, an enterprise that proved so popular that the owners are making the meal available for takeout in 2011. Owners George and Orysia Wozniak had little choice; their restaurant was fully booked for both Julian Christmas Eve and Christmas Day by mid-November. “We have a real mix of clientele,” says Orysia, “ranging from those who have eaten the 12-course [dinner] all their lives to non-Ukrainians who love Ukrainian food or want to experiment.”
When the restaurant opened, Orysia noticed that the Christmas feast was particularly popular with vegetarians. Dusseault, in California, likes being able to invite vegetarians and observant Jewish friends to a “second” holiday dinner that complies automatically with their dietary restrictions. “I get to invite them over in January, when the craziness has died down, for a tradition that’s just as arbitrary as any of theirs.”