Ukrainian Christmas and Classic Borscht
This Saturday, January 6, we will gathered in our home to celebrate Christmas as we do every year at this time.
My ancestors were Ukrainian immigrants instrumental in settling western Canada in the late 19th and early 20th century. They came from humble means to pursue freedom and a better life in Canada. When they came, they brought their rich and colourful culture with them. While I don’t speak the language, there are other traditions that have endured the test of time. Celebrating what is known as Ukrainian Christmas is one of the biggest.
When my family left the Ukraine before the First World War, they still followed the old Julian calendar. At the time, there was a 13-day difference between the Julian calendar and the Gregorian calendar (the one in common use today). This resulted in them celebrating Christmas 13 days later, on January 7. It is a practice that continues today.
The main celebration takes place on Christmas Eve, January 6, with the Holy Supper. Tradition, pageantry, and amazing food fills this celebration!
A carefully-set scene awaits. A wisp of hay spread on a bare table reminds us of Christ’s humble beginnings in the stable in Bethlehem. It is then covered with a white tablecloth. Places are set, with an extra place setting to welcome strangers who may come to the door. There is always room (and enough food) for one more! Incense (traditional) or essential oils (modern) diffused represent the gifts brought by the Magi. Bonus points if you actually use frankincense or myrrh! The kolach is an arrangement of three rings of braided sweet bread representing the Trinity. The rings stacked together form the table centerpiece. A single candle, traditionally beeswax, placed in the center of the kolach represents Christ’s light to the world.
It is the children’s job to keep watch for the first night’s star, representing the Star of Bethlehem. Once sighted, this signals the beginning of the meal. Twelve meatless (fish is OK), dairy-free dishes are served. They are meatless and dairy-free because Christmas Eve is the last day of the Nativity Fast. The Nativity Fast commemorates Mary and Joseph’s grueling trip to Bethlehem. Having been pregnant myself, I cannot imagine how hard that trip must have been on poor Mary!
The twelve traditional dishes represent Christ’s twelve apostles. The first dish is always kutia, a kind of sweet, cold soup made of wheat kernels. We make ours with buckwheat to accommodate our gluten-free environment. Obviously that doesn’t help me since I’m still grain-free, but everyone else can happily partake! We also serve Pidpenky, pickled herring, baked sole, Glazed Beets, sauerkraut, and fruit compote for dessert – all AIP-friendly! Delicious and nutritious! There are also some delicious AIP-friendly pyrohi recipes out there, such as this one from Predominantly Paleo for baked and friend pyrohi that I might get around to trying one day.
While typical Ukrainian fare is quite heavy on the grains, I have been able to make several recipes AIP-friendly. As important as maintaining a healing diet is, it is also important to foster a community around you and maintain who you are. Celebrating Ukrainian Christmas is an important part of my family and my heritage, and it’s a tradition I want to pass on to Little Miss.
A new recipe for this year is an AIP spin on my Classic Borscht. Warning – this does make a HUGE recipe, so you’ll probably want to scale down or make sure you have LOTS of freezer space!
- 2 pounds rutabaga, diced
- 2pounds white sweet potato, diced
- 2 cups carrots, shredded
- 4 pounds beets, slivered
- 4 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 medium onions, chopped
- 1/2 large head of cabbage, shredded or thinly sliced
- 8 cups chicken broth (may use veggie broth for a vegan option)
- 16 cups water (or use all broth if you have that much on hand)
- 4 bay leaves
- 2 tablespoons dill
- 4 tablespoons thyme
- 4 tablespoons rosemary
- 3 teaspoons sea salt (to taste)
- 1/4 cups apple cider vinegar or lemon or lime juice
- 4-5 pounds ground pork (optional, not included for the Holy Supper)
- Once the veggies are prepared, combine all ingredients, except cabbage and pork (if using), into a large soup pot. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer until veggies are cooked and soft.
- Stir in cabbage and continue simmering until cabbage is cooked.
- Brown ground pork and either add directly to soup pot, or portion individually into bowls and add soup to bowls to serve immediately.
This recipe makes a hearty and warming soup to make up for some of the frigid temperatures we’ve had lately (-40F/C!). It is also the traditional second course of the Holy Supper. I am so looking forward to it! White beans (traditionally prepared) are another traditional ingredient in borscht. You may include these if legumes are not problematic for you. Including these will increase cooking time as the beans will take longer to cook than the veggies.
Do you know someone who celebrates Ukrainian Christmas, or do you yourself? What has been your experience with borscht? Let me know below!