Christmas has come and gone for many of us, but there are those in Portage la Prairie who have yet to celebrate Christmas. 

Eastern Orthodox churches and similar celebrate Christmas on January 7th. Iryna Braun is from western Ukraine and moved to Portage in March of 2021. She shares with us why they celebrate that date and outlines some of the traditions that are involved with it.

“I will describe it as a cycle of Christmas holidays which is not only about Christianity,” says Braun. “The Ukrainian nation goes far back in age. So, it's a combination of pagan rituals and Christian customs and traditions. It’s so organic and so together, complete and unique that now, lots of people don't even know the origin of everything.”

Although they have their traditional Christmas in January, they still honour December 25th.  

“We start December 25 because some people celebrate Christmas with the Western world,” continues Braun. “The greater part of Ukrainians celebrate Christmas according to Orthodox tradition on January 7. On Christmas Eve, there were always 12 dishes that symbolize 12 months in the year according to one idea, and according to another, it’s 12 followers of Jesus Christ. But it's always about commemorating the deceased ancestors. It's always about families gathering together about Jesus Christ and Christianity, and always about wishing prosperity, good health, and good welfare to owners of the house, family members, and so on.”

Braun says two different calendars are the reason there are two dates for Christ’s birth that give rise to Christmas tradition.

“One is from the Roman Empire, the Julian calendar, and also the Gregorian calendar,” continues Braun. “Roman emperors were trying to change the world, and said, ‘We are missing some time in the year and we need to reschedule all the dates.’ Somehow, the Western Christian world started following the Gregorian calendar, and the Orthodox Eastern world started following the Julian calendar. That's why the results saw two-week gaps in between. But right now, every year, close to Christmas time, Ukraine is trying to join more of the Western world. Somehow, this year, it didn't happen yet. So, we hope it will happen next year.”

Braun adds the foods enjoyed at this time of year have a special focus on Christmas Eve.

“It’s meatless dishes,” notes Braun. “It could be Kutia, the main dish of Christmas Eve. It is wheat, dried fruit, some nuts and poppy seed, and it's all together. That's a symbol of all family members being together. Wheat is made of lots of parts. All the other dishes are well-known and even include common Canadian food. There are perogies and lots of bakery items. Christmas the next day has meat involved like a feast. It's lots of food, sometimes too much. I remember mentioning to my grandmother that there is no need to cook so much. But she would still insist, ‘You know nothing about Christmas. There should be lots of food in the house.”

She says several traditional activities include the singing of carols.

“I won't say it's a unique and predominantly Ukrainian idea because other European countries like Germany has it, but we call it Vertep. It is a show which involves lots of singing and poem reciting by the members of that show,” notes Braun. “And it's all about Jesus Christ being born. It's about the star in Bethlehem to let the world know that Jesus was born. It’s wishing prosperity and good health to people. Members in those shows, each participant, will have a specific role: St. Mary and the newborn baby, and the three wise men going to Jerusalem to greet the newborn baby. There is Herod, the evil king. They dress up and try their best. Sometimes you cannot tell by dressing who they are, but they try their best.”

Braun says members of the Vertep show will present their performance from house to house.

“Or they go to their relatives, or to people they know,” says Braun. “We will perform that to owners of the houses that they are visiting.  Some will get some money, fruits, chocolates, or sweets for that, but it's fun. Christmas holidays in Ukraine are fun. Even this year, on Christmas the 26th in Portage, with the Ukrainian community we gathered together and visited the homes of Ukrainian people in Portage to sing some carols, to make them feel at home. That was nice and they were happy. It's important, even when we are here, to keep the tradition going.”

Braun arrived in the Portage area with her family in March of 2021.

“My husband is from here,” adds Braun. “He was born in Austin, Manitoba. He has Mennonite heritage and that's why we are here. It's his homeland here. We live in the country. I enjoy being here. It's all nice.”

She’s originally from western Ukraine which, she explains, is very multicultural.

“It’s like a small model of Canada, because Canada is very multicultural and multinational. It’s the same as Western Ukraine,” notes Braun. “We had Germans leaving there, Jewish people and Hungarian because it’s close to the border. Ukraine on the western border has five countries. Living close to the border, it's always international relationship: trade, financial, marriages, and whatsoever. So, all those cultures and traditions of other countries were very naturally involved into Ukrainian ones. My family is still celebrating Christmas on January 7th in Ukraine. On the 25th, Polish people celebrate their Christmas.”

Braun says they wouldn’t do nothing on December 25th, despite their traditional day in January, in effort to show respect for those living near to them and celebrate with them. She adds it’s to show appreciation of their cultures and traditions, what they follow and what they believe.