Andrea K. Paterson remembers the Ukrainian traditions that were a part of Easter when she was growing up, and thinks about her own role in keeping those traditions alive.
I rarely think about my Ukrainian heritage. I’ve been too busy trying to claim British roots. It’s the lightning sound of Scottish fiddling that gets my blood pumping, the bluebell-streaked water colour of the English countryside that soothes my overactive mind, and the smashing power of Orcadian waves assaulting the craggy cliffs that ignites my imagination. My British roots are tenuous though, and it’s Ukraine that has a concrete claim on my ancestral past. I remember this at Easter, when the Ukrainian rituals come through the strongest and speak of a little-known part of my history. I do carry small snippets of ceremony — things related to food, to crafts, and to vague memories of my Great-Baba, who never really learned to speak English and who called me “Andrika” because she couldn’t pronounce my name in English.
When I was a child, my Baba used to take us to the Ukrainian Church before Easter Sunday and we would have baskets of food blessed by the priest there. We brought paska, a heavy and sweet egg bread studded with raisins; hard boiled eggs; kielbasa; perogies that my Baba and Gidu spent whole days slaving over as their kitchen filled with steam and the smell of boiling dough; and extraordinary wax relief Easter eggs covered in black and red Ukrainian designs.
It was my job to make the butter lamb. You could buy butter molded into the shape of a lamb but somehow I started making them myself and the job stuck. I would pull slightly chilled butter out of the fridge and sculpt it into the shape of a lamb lying down. I used peppercorns for the eyes. My butter lamb was sprinkled with holy water, which was also sprinkled on the meat and eggs for Easter Sunday breakfast. All the food was wrapped in cloth embroidered by my Great-Baba who was a master cross-stitcher and produced an unbelievable amount of table runners and dresser scarves over the course of her lifetime.
I eventually took up the craft of Pysanky: the wax relief Ukrainian Easter eggs that seem impossibly intricate. I have come to love the smell of molten beeswax and the flicker of candles used to heat the metal funnel of the stylus. I love watching the wax come off the egg at the end to reveal the colours beneath. I was first taught by Ukrainian women who ran a workshop at the church, and I think of them whenever I pull out the jars of dye and the vinegar baths for my eggs.
I now live far away from home and I haven’t been home at Easter in a very long time. Easter isn’t a big deal in my husband’s family so I miss the ceremony of it. Even though I have had atheistic tendencies for many years, I miss the familiar rituals of Easter — Baba and Gidu arriving on Easter Sunday and greeting the family in Ukrainian. The traditional greeting is “Khrystos Voskres” (Christ is risen) and you are meant to respond with “Voistyno Voskres” (He is truly risen). I miss sitting down to a meal of epic proportions — ham, cabbage rolls, and everything out of the Easter baskets. I miss the loud, boisterous relatives. I miss making the butter lamb.
I have one of my Great Baba’s embroidered table runners on top of a cabinet in my dining room. I was looking at it yesterday — the perfect stitches, the geometric patterns — and thinking of Easter and the Ukrainian heritage that I mainly ignored and am now watching slip away.
I think that perhaps I should try making a dresser scarf of my own. I think that maybe I should learn to make cabbage rolls the way my Great Baba did, filling trays and trays with them in the days before Easter. I think maybe I should make a butter lamb, not because I believe in a higher power but because I believe in the power of ritual to connect family members to each other and to their ancestral past. The stories, the crafts, the food, the music…all these things have meaning and this year I find that I miss them. I find that I crave the heat of the over-crowded kitchen, the fights over the prized kielbasa from the best Toronto butcher, the scramble for the last perogies. We so often take for granted the defining moments of family. And today I reach back, trying to grasp the memories, taste the paska on my tongue, feel the comforting embrace of tradition.
“Butter Lamb” SquirrelCondo @ Flickr.com. Creative Commons. Some Rights Reserved.