When I was growing up, I was fortunate enough to celebrate two Christmases each year: “American” Christmas on Dec. 25 and Ukrainian (Julian calendar) Christmas on Jan. 7.
Dec. 25th was about a tree and presents under it. We would listen to my parents’ LP of Bing Crosby, Percy Faith, and other crooners singing the usual English Christmas carols as we decorated the tree. There were no stockings, and we didn’t do anything special on Christmas Eve, but Christmas morning I would wake up to find brightly-wrapped loot under the tree. I was allowed to open them before my parents woke up (wise decision on their part–playing with my new toys or reading my new books kept me occupied for hours, allowing them to sleep in). I believed in Santa for a while, until I outed my parents when I was 8 by announcing “Guess what? Santa left the price tags on my presents!” to which my father responded, “Oops.”
We’d have a big family lunch–my aunt, uncle, and grandmother would come over, and sometimes my other grandmother and great-aunt. My uncle would always say that Santa accidentally left some presents for me at his house. Everything was over by 4:00 so everyone could get home (less than 2 miles away) before dark–that was, for some reason, an obsession with my family.
Ukrainian Christmas was very different. The tree stayed up till then, and often there’d be a single present under it for me, but the focus was the centuries-old tradition of the Christmas Eve dinner. We always ate this meal at my grandmother’s house. As soon as the evening’s first star came out, we would sit down to the table. After my grandfather passed away, there was still a place set at the table for him in remembrance, as is the custom.
Tradition dictates 12 specific dishes be served, each with a symbolic meaning. (This site has a good description of Ukrainian Christmas traditions.) My grandmother usually didn’t make all 12 dishes, but I think she made at least 8 of them. My favorite was kutya, a mix of poppy seeds, wheat berries, nuts, and honey in water.
The next day, Jan. 7, we all went to church (I took the day off from school if it was a weekday) for a special service, followed by lunch and caroling in the banquet hall, and it was not unusual in the early days for families to visit each other’s houses for caroling.
Of course I loved getting presents, but for me it was the second Christmas that held meaning, even though I wasn’t then, and am not now, religious.
Now, to go back to Santa for a moment. I can’t remember now if I made wishlists for my parents to pass on to Santa or not, though I suspect I did, and while there was usually a surprise under the tree (most memorable being the backgammon set I received when I was 8 or 9, and still have), most gifts were things that I knew my parents knew I wanted.
But at Ukrainian school (which occurred on Saturdays, at one of the local elementary schools), Father Frost came to the holiday assembly and gave out a gift to each child. The same year that price tags gave my parents away as the purchases of my Dec. 25th presents, Father Frost gave me a portable radio. I hadn’t told anyone I wanted one–how did he know? While I was easily able to dismiss the existence of Santa, I wasn’t so sure about Father Frost. And I wasn’t about to ask any questions.