Ukrainian newcomers celebrate their first Christmas in Canada, wishing for peace back home

Natalia Semyboroda still remembers the air raid sirens blaring at 5 a.m. as she, her husband and their three-year-old son rushed to their basement cellar in Ukraine in late February.

“I’d tell my son we are playing a game to check out the inventory kept in the dark,” she said.

Shortly after the Russian invasion, Semyboroda fled from Pavlohrad, making her way to Poland. With one palm gripping onto her son’s hand and another holding his diaper bag, Semyboroda brought along nothing for herself other than the clothes she was wearing.

The family went to Germany then to Paris, where they finally boarded the plane to Canada, becoming one of the first displaced Ukrainians to arrive.

After staying in Osler, Sask., from March to August, the family of three moved to Saskatoon, making it their second home.

Between March 17 and Dec. 6, Canada received 724,494 applications from Ukrainian nationals and their family members. Of those, 451,258 have been approved so far and approximately 3,000 people have made Saskatchewan their new home.

For centuries, Orthodox Ukrainians have celebrated Christmas on Jan. 7, as per the Julian calendar, but now many will also observe it on Dec. 25. For many displaced by the Russian invasion, this will be the first Christmas in Canada.

A woman sitting at a table clad in a white t-shirt smiles. In front of her, are kept bowls of borscht and sour cream.
Natalia Semyboroda says sour cream with borscht is her favorite Ukrainian meal. She says cooking borscht in Saskatoon takes her back to home. (Pratyush Dayal/CBC)

Semyboroda still remembers the smell of cinnamon from her Christmas this past January, with all her family around. 

“Nieces and nephews running around with toys and candies for all and the sweet Kutia being passed around.”

This year, she will not make Kutia, a traditional grain dish with sweet gravy, but through community donations there is already a Christmas tree adorning the corner of her apartment.

“I’m so happy to receive all the support. It’s magical,” she said. “But my heart is back home as all my friends are there and the situation is still difficult.”

The 39-year-old is hoping she will be more settled in Saskatoon by next Christmas.

“When I cook my borscht here, I remember my home. I cooked it for the first time when I was 12,” Semyboroda said, calling it her favourite dish.

“All families in Ukraine have a special ingredient for borscht. I like mine with tomato juice and a little bit of sugar.”

A man in a white shirt smiles looking at a distance. Behind him, sits a Christmas tree.
Vlad Ternovsky says Christmas feels different this year, not being surrounded with relatives and friends. (Chanss Lagaden/CBC)

Many Ukrainian newcomers in Saskatchewan will be cooking 12 meatless dishes for Christmas Eve, as is tradition. 

Vlad Ternovsky, who arrived in early summer from Odesa, is one of them.

His memories of past Christmases are still fresh, but he said this one will be different.

“We are worried as some of our relatives and friends are in the occupied territories,” he said.

“Christmas is a family holiday and a moment to be together with family.”

Ternovsky will attend a Christmas service and celebrate the holiday with his host family. He plans to make a holy cross with pecans on his bowl of Kutia, made of rice instead of the usual wheat berries, a surviving tradition.

“We begin the meal with three morsels of Kutiya to mark the birth of Christ,” Ternovsky said.

A closeup picture of hands holding glasses of a brown fluid.
Vlad Ternovsky and his family clink their glasses of Uzvar, a popular Ukrainian drink, and wish to be back in Ukraine with family and friends next Christmas. (Chanss Lagaden/CBC)

Earlier this month, Ternovsky’s family sat around their table, clinked their glasses of Uzvar — a Ukrainian drink made by boiling dry fruits — and wished for a better future for themselves and their country.

“If the war stops, say tomorrow, we will get back to Ukraine immediately, but I’m sure I’ll be with my family for next Christmas.”

‘Canadian-style Christmas’

Olena Tarasenko and Olena Seleznova-Mykytiuk have the same wish.

The two were English teachers back in Ukraine and arrived in Saskatoon in the fall.

“Now, we are helping other Ukrainians and newcomers like me to resettle in Saskatchewan . A person who helps others helps himself,” Tarasenko said.

Both women now work at the Saskatoon Open Door Society. They recently brought some traditional Ukrainian meals for their colleagues, who are now like extended family.

Seleznova-Mykytiuk said the last Christmas was full of “joy, happiness and hope,” with family and friends around.

“We were making plans and wishes for the next Christmas and didn’t know what Feb. 24 was about to bring,” she said.

Two women stand in front of a Christmas tree.
Olena Tarasenko and Olena Seleznova-Mykytiuk were teachers back in Ukraine and are now helping other Ukrainians resettle. (Pratyush Dayal/CBC)

Tarasenko agreed, saying that if the invasion hadn’t happened, she would be driving to her mother’s place for the holy supper to make the 12 dishes.

“This year I am alone, but it’s still a special Canadian-style Christmas that I’ll celebrate with the family who hosted me when I came here,” she said.

“My only hope this Christmas is peace and prosperity for Ukraine and that the war stops.”

Tarasenko will prepare homestyle perogies with mashed potatoes, fresh cabbage and blueberries, as they are the “symbols of well-being and prosperity.”

“Cooking perogies brings back memories from my childhood,” Tarasenko said.

“All the smells and tastes take me back home when the nearest and dearest were together. Only now, I appreciate and value those precious moments.”

A table having a spread of perogies, salads and desserts.
Olena Tarasenko and Olena Seleznova-Mykytiuk recently brought some traditional Ukrainian Christmas dishes for their colleagues at the Saskatoon Open Door Society. (Chanss Lagaden/CBC)

Seleznova-Mykytiuk said she will prepare traditional winter salads like Shuba, Vinegret and Olivier with her 10-year-old son.

“It will be like home, family cooking together,” she said. “It reminds me of my mother and brings back the warmth of our homes.”

Both the women hope the next Christmas will be spent with their families, once again united, in Ukraine.

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