Ukrainians who fled war mark first Christmas in Canada
Anastasiia Tertyshna recalls sitting at the dinner table on Christmas Eve last year at her parents’ house in eastern Ukraine, joking with her husband and siblings as they ate a traditional pudding usually prepared for the holiday.
It will be a very different scene this year as Tertyshna marks the season in Canada far from her husband, parents and other family members after fleeing the war in Ukraine.
“I don’t know when I can see them,” she says in an interview. “I wish my relatives were at least here with me. But it is impossible.”
Tertyshna, who arrived in Mississauga, Ontario, about two months ago, is among tens of thousands of Ukrainian newcomers celebrating their first Christmas in Canada while worrying about loved ones they left behind.
Tertyshna says her Christmas plan this year is to call her husband in Kyiv and virtually attend a family reunion he wants to attend.
“I’ll see them all on video,” she says. “I’ll probably cry.”
In Ukraine, many celebrate the festive season from January 6 to 19 based on the Orthodox calendar, with Orthodox Christmas falling on January 7.
Tertyshna says that while it will be difficult to celebrate the holiday without loved ones, she hopes to take part in celebrations in Canada on Christmas Day as well as Orthodox Christmas.
On December 25th, she and her friends plan to visit downtown Toronto to experience Canadian Christmas traditions. On Orthodox Christmas Eve, she plans to have dinner with the family she lives with, and on the morning of January 7, she hopes to attend a church in Toronto.
Some Ukrainian newcomers are planning to celebrate Christmas on December 25 instead of January 7 this year to protest the Russian Orthodox Church’s support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Korzhenovska Yuliia, who arrived in Canada from Ukraine in August, said her family started discussing changes as they celebrated Christmas after Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula in 2014. Last year they celebrated Christmas on December 25th for the first time.
“Now I’m 100 percent sure it was a good decision for us,” she says, pointing out that her family’s goal was to distance themselves from Russian culture. She and her roommate will be doing it this year too.
“For me, Christmas on January 7 reminds me more of the Russian tradition,” she says. “I want to keep it away from Russia, from Russian tradition.”
Yuliia says it makes her “very sad” to know that her family won’t be around her during this holiday season, but she hopes to be with them again for next year’s holiday.
“It’s really, really hard,” she says.
Olya Bolshov, a mother of two who now lives in Toronto with her husband, says it will be hard to celebrate Christmas, but she puts on a brave face to show her children that “Russian invaders” are them could not steal joy.
“We’re not really in a celebratory mood because there’s a war in Ukraine and obviously all our thoughts and prayers are over there,” she says through her husband, who translates her words.
Bolshov recalled that her eight-year-old daughter recently asked if it was safe for St. Nicholas – the Ukrainian version of Santa – to travel to Ukraine and give gifts to children there.
“She was worried about whether or not Saint Nicholas would visit Ukraine because the Russians are bombing and flying a lot of rockets,” she says.
Ukrainian men between the ages of 18 and 60 have been banned from leaving the country since Russia invaded. As a result, many newcomers arriving in Canada are women and children, separated from male family members.
Toronto’s St. Demetrius Ukrainian Orthodox Church hopes to help newcomers to Ukraine celebrate the season by hosting them for an Orthodox Christmas Eve dinner.
Darcia Moskaluk-Rutkay, the church’s vice president, says the plan is to serve sviat vechir, 12 meatless dishes that Orthodox Ukrainians prepare for Christmas Eve dinner “so they know they won’t be forgotten.”
Moskaluk-Rutkay says many newly arriving families may not be able to afford to prepare the dishes or know where to get the spices and other needed ingredients, so the church steps in to serve the food.
Born in Canada to Ukrainian parents, Moskaluk-Rutkay says her family has kept their traditions alive for decades and she wants to help others do the same.
“We, as old Ukrainian Canadian immigrants, brought that to Canada and we kept it,” says Moshaluk-Rutkay, who is also president of the Ukrainian Women’s Association of Canada.
“The occupiers are trying to destroy our traditions and it is so important to uphold our tradition so that it continues and so that the occupiers do not win in this regard.”
This report from The Canadian Press was first published on December 23, 2022.