A Glimpse into the Holiday Celebrations of a Post-WWII Diaspora in Oshawa

By Mia V., Visitor Host

As I’ve discussed in previous blog posts, Oshawa’s post-WWII religious landscape had pre-war roots and was quite vast. The significance of this, of having cultural institutions built by and for one’s community, cannot be overstated, especially for the holidays. For many immigrants and their descendants – such as those in Oshawa at this time – intentionally connecting to one’s heritage was and is central to the celebration of Christmas. 

Christmas in the diaspora – many thousands of kilometres away from home and extended family – could not have been easy at first. However, a sense of community could still prevail, as newcomers were often embraced by members of their own community and adjacent communities. For example, for “Ukrainian” Easter, newer immigrants were incorporated into holiday celebrations of more established individuals. This point was shared for the museum’s oral history project, and it is also documented in the article “DP Girls Entertained by Oshawa Polish Groups” (March 23, 1948). This article, as you can read below, describes how newly arrived Polish and Latvian women from a German camp to Whitby were welcomed to an event at the Olive Avenue Polish Hall.

Left image: This Times-Gazette newspaper clipping describes how the women were welcomed, their reactions, and also that they will likely be welcomed at “festivities in connection with the approaching Easter season.”
Right image: Polish Alliance of Canada Hall on Olive Avenue, 2020

Despite this, the lead-up to the holidays would have been entirely different, marked with unfamiliar holiday habits and missing most of the familiar ones. For those that may celebrate different holidays or the same holidays on different dates, the resulting feeling might be that of disconnection from the cheerful hustle and bustle of the season. For instance, with Advent and the Nativity Fast in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, the official start of the Christmas season might actually be earlier than one would expect and lasts well into January, until Epiphany is celebrated on either the 6th or 19th. (You can read more about the difference in calendars here!) Whether or not individuals strictly participate in the entire fast, this period certainly drives up anticipation for Christmas – with all the delicious foods and treats that are associated with it.

Here is bandura player George Metulynsky, dressed in Ukrainian folk clothing which is customary for special occasions. Music, such as carolling, was another Oshawa Ukrainian diaspora tradition, as the article describes the church’s youth group partaking in. / Oshawa Times, “Ancient music heralds holiday for Ukrainians” (January 6 1981)

The Ukrainian custom is to have twelve dishes on Christmas Eve – or Sviatyi Vechir (“Holy Evening”) – representing the twelve apostles, as the Oshawa Times reported on January 7th, 1984. Kutia (wheat cooked with barley and race and other flavourful ingredients such as nuts, poppy seeds, and honey) is eaten at the beginning of the meal – and is not to be confused with the more savoury buckwheat that is also served. Other sweets include uzvar (a fruit drink) and baked apples. The side dishes and main courses include a kind of vinaigrette (from beets, carrots, beans, and boiled potatoes), vareniki (dumplings similar to pierogies), cabbage soup, pickles, borscht, pastries (which can also be sweet or savoury), stuffed cabbage rolls (or golubtsy), and vegetable stew.

Christmas Eve dinner with the Nabreznyj family. Seated at the far end of the table is Fr. Roman Nabereznyj, of St. George’s Ukrainian Catholic Church. It is interesting to note, that at least until very recently, both Ukrainian Orthodox and Catholic believers (especially in the diaspora) celebrated Christmas on January 7th.

Some other key Ukrainian customs include kolach, special braided bread – which is also similarly essential to many other traditions across Europe – along with a didukh, or carefully gathered sheaf of wheat. Kutia (or wheat cooked with barley and race and other flavourful ingredients such as nuts, poppy seeds, and honey) is also an important part of Christmas Eve dinner in Ukraine.

Ukrainian Christmas table set up for a display at the Oshawa Museum in the 1990s. The didukh is visible in the left corner, while the special bread and wheat are on the table (centre and right respectively). A018.6.282.

In Canada today, many of the holiday practices with which we might be familiar came from diverse origins around the world. One of the main ways in which these traditions came to be incorporated is by immigrants who brought them over from the old country. This post covers one small portion of those traditions, but hopefully you’ll have learned something new about the way the holidays were marked here in Oshawa!


Many thanks to Mia for researching and writing about many holiday traditions from Eastern Europe for the Oshawa Museum’s Holiday Blog! You can read about them by clicking through the links in the post, or by visiting:

https://oshawamuseumholiday.wordpress.com/

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