Anna Waschuck flicked her blond braids back over her shoulders and picked up another cabbage leaf. As she spooned rice filling into the cabbage cup, she glanced anxiously at her mother working beside her. How am I going to ask her? she wondered. Mama will be disappointed. She always likes the family around her for Svyata Vechera (holy supper that many Ukrainian families have on Christmas Eve).
“Why must we have our Christmas in January!” Anna complained, as she folded the leaf and rolled it into a neat little bundle.
“Because in the Ukraine some still use the Julian calendar and Christmas there falls on a different day than here,” Mama replied.
“But it makes life so difficult!” exclaimed Anna. “Everything happens when we are celebrating. I miss all the fun!”
“Ah—h, that’s why you’ve been so quiet. Is there something special tonight that you want to do?”
“Oh, Mama! Kathy is having a skating party this afternoon, and she’s invited me to go.”
“When we finish making the pirohy, you may go. But be back in time for Svyata Vechera.”
“She’s having pizza after the skating. If I go, I won’t be home in time for the supper.”
“Anna, it won’t be quite the same unless the whole family is together for the feast. But I won’t forbid you to go to the party. You are old enough to make your own decision.”
They worked in silence, while Anna wondered what to do. At last in annoyance she snapped, “Why do we have to keep Ukrainian customs? We’re Canadian now!”
“Some of the old familiar ways are a comfort to your father and me in this new land,” Mama replied quietly.
As Anna rolled the last of the cabbage leaves, she was undecided about what to tell Kathy. She thought of the fun it would be to play crack-the-whip on the ice and laugh with her friends. At home there was only her eight-year-old brother Steve, and just playing with him wouldn’t be much fun. But Mama would be unhappy with an empty place at the table for Svyata Vechera. There will be another Svyata Vechera next year but there might not be another party for me so I must go! Anna finally decided.
Anna lay the last holubtsi in the pot, and looked at the clock. It is one o’clock! The party begins at two. We’ll never finish making the pirohy in time! she thought. I must work faster.”
Mother began rolling and cutting the pastry for the pirohy. Anna filled each square with a small ball of potato and cheese mixture. Quickly she folded the pastry over, squeezed the edges together, and dropped the dumpling onto the pile. Mother would boil them just before supper.
While she worked, Anna kept peeking at the clock. The hands seemed to race. It’s quarter to two already! I’ll never make it, she worried.
“I see you’re watching the clock. You’ve decided to go,” her mother said. “Run along. I’ll finish.”
“Thanks, Mama,” Anna called, as she hurried to get her skates and into her heavy clothes.
Before running out the back door, she turned to say good-bye. But even though Mama waved and smiled Anna could see the hurt in her face. The uncomfortable thought that Mama still had several foods to prepare nagged at Anna. There had to be twelve meatless dishes, one for each of the apostles.
“But she can manage,” Anna murmured reassuringly. “She had to do it all alone when I was little.”
As Anna walked along, a cold gust of wind blew icy flakes from a snowbank over her. It’s a good thing I have these warm mittens, she thought, looking with pride at the exquisitely embroidered flowers on them. Mama had made them and no one else at school had such a beautiful pair. The memory of the many things her mother did for her came crowding into Anna’s mind, mingled with a picture of her mother’s sad face when she had waved good-bye. Mama had prepared and looked forward happily to the holy supper. It would be disappointing to all the family if there were an empty chair at the table.
Anna stopped a moment while she decided what to do. She hoped Kathy would understand. She would be sorry to miss her skating party but there would be others they could attend together before spring.
Anna turned and ran back toward home. And when she opened the door, the pleasure she saw on Mama’s face made Anna glow inside.
“Come, Annushka, let us set the table,” was all Mama said.
Before spreading their best embroidered tablecloth, Anna strewed a handful of hay in memory of the Christ Child. Then she placed three braided loaves of bread on top of each other in the center of the table. Next Anna inserted a white candle in the top loaf, and encircled the bottom one with twigs of evergreen. As she worked, Anna recalled her excitement when Mama had first let her prepare the table for Svyata Vechera.
Soon Father arrived home from the mine, and while he washed up, Anna and Mama changed into their snowy white Ukrainian blouses covered with embroidery. When Father and Steve had on their high-necked shirts, her mother declared everything ready. Mama brought in the steaming dishes, and they sat down at the table. Little Steve watched out the window for the first star to appear to signal the beginning of the meal.
As they waited, Anna looked at their happy faces. Mama beamed with joy. It’s lovely to be with my family on such an occasion, Anna thought. And it is good to be able to enjoy old customs as well as new ones!