In 1902 my great-grandparents emigrated to Canada from Galicia, a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, where many inhabitants left due to heavy taxation, an unfavourable political situation, over-population and the subsequent subdivision of land holdings. Statistics indicate that from 1891 to 1914 between 100,000 and 170,000 Ukrainian immigrants arrived in Canada – with the largest number settling in the province of Manitoba.
Joseph Lozinsky states in a document published by the Catholic Education Resource Center, "These early settlers sold whatever property they had, bundled up their children and took the train to Hamburg, then a German ship to Halifax and another train to the Canadian West".
"Ending up in Winnipeg or Edmonton immigrant sheds, they purchased food and farm supplies and spread out to settle on empty quarter sections of land across the Prairie provinces.”
From Winnipeg, Manitoba, my ancestors travelled 320 km north to the Gonta district where their quarter section of free land was located (a quarter section = ¼ square mile, about 0.65 km2 or 160 acres). It was late autumn before they arrived at their new home and the frigid, winter temperature of the northern prairies was rearing its blustery face. There was no time to clear the land and build a proper house, so a dugout shelter was constructed – a deep hole in the ground, with short walls and a roof constructed of logs and sod.
My grandmother, Nellie Hykawy, was only one and a half years old when she arrived in Manitoba with her parents. As was the case in those days, immigrants of the same ethnic origin tended to settle in the same areas. When she was 18, Nellie married John Karpiak, who came from Ukraine with his family in 1907 and they settled in the Haig district. Thirty acres of their farm situated near Garland had been cleared but it wasn’t enough to provide a suitable income to make a living. When flooding destroyed hay and grain crops, and steers died of blackleg, my grandfather John was forced to spend periods of his life working as a section hand for the Canadian National Railway or in the smelter of the Mond Nickel Company in Ontario. Eventually he earned enough money to buy two horses and some farming implements, and returned to his farm in Manitoba.
Nellie raised her three children while John was away. Water was carried by pails from a creek one kilometre away, rainwater was collected in barrels and snow was melted in winter.
My mother, Alice, born in 1923, was the second-oldest child. There was a constant list of chores to be completed: picking stones from the fields, tending sheep, milking cows, and chopping and stacking firewood. Along with her siblings, she attended a one-room schoolhouse that had a large wood stove in the centre of the room. They did their homework on the kitchen table by the light of a coal oil lamp. My grandfather, John, never learned much English, although my grandmother Nellie was much more literate. My mom learned to speak, read and write Ukrainian at home while she was taught English at school.
My Ukrainian-Canadian father, Alex Didur, was born and raised on a nearby farm. Today my mother is 90 years old and living in the same northern Ontario community that Alex brought her to in 1943. I was born in this small Ontario mining town of approximately 1,000 people who spoke mainly English and French. The only Ukrainian I learned was the typical small talk such as: meal time, bed time, come here, go there, do this and that, listen here, be good, do you understand – or else!?
Since we were not living in a Ukrainian community, we celebrated Christmas on December 25th along with all of our friends and neighbours, opening presents from Santa, and having a turkey dinner with all the trimmings. We also celebrated Ukrainian Christmas Eve on January 6th with the traditional twelve meatless dishes for dinner – and toasts with cherry whiskey (diluted with ginger ale for the kids). There’s nothing like having a Christmas double-header!
In the 1950s, we would drive to Manitoba to visit our grandparents (a three-day trip in those days) when my dad had his vacation from the mine, and we’d spend time on both family farms. I remember those visits well – the old tractors, the work horses with their huge feet, fields of wheat swaying in the wind like waves on the sea, fetching the cows for milking, gathering eggs from the hen house, being chased by hissing geese, admiring the pigs cooling off in the mud, and the severe thunderstorm that knocked dozens of barn swallow nests down to the ground with the young birds still in them. How we tried to rescue them from the chickens! I also remember the old furniture inside the house, the lace doilies, the oil lamps, the large wood stove in the kitchen, and the religious icons on the wall. It all seemed mysterious and strange, so unlike my world of electricity, an oil-furnace for heat, concrete sidewalks, a television and electric stove.
My baba Nellie died in 1985. She was my last surviving grandparent. The last time I saw her she was climbing down the ladder into her root cellar and emerging with a bottle of “moonshine”, the last bottle she had of her husband’s stock. She opened it and poured me a drink.
“I was saving this for a special occasion”, she said, “and this is it”. We shared many stories. I recounted the mischief we had caused on the farm when my siblings and I had visited decades before, and she recounted memories of her early days. I treasure that visit.
I asked my mother to tell me stories from her childhood, and listened intently as she recalled growing up on the farm in Manitoba during the 1920s and 1930s. With the Christmas season now before us, I would like to share her memories of a Ukrainian Christmas – Canadian style – back in that era. This is her story in her own words.
There was a tiny community hall beside our one-room schoolhouse. On our last day of school before the Christmas holidays, we would have a Christmas party in the hall. We would decorate the hall, perform short skits and sing carols. Santa Claus would come, and he would hand out candies and other small treats to all of the children. I remember one special year, when my father was away from home working in the smelter in Coniston, Ontario. After distributing goodies, Santa sat down in a chair and called up Nestor Karpiak, my older brother! Santa gave him a Tinker Toy construction set.
Then Santa called up my sister Ann and me and handed each of us a beautiful porcelain doll. My mother said they were very dainty and fragile, and that we shouldn’t play with them. She created a special place for them on the shelves of a corner cupboard, and there they sat on display. We had homemade dolls that were soft and pliable to play with, but we admired our two beautiful, fancy dolls. We didn’t know it at the time, but our father had purchased the gifts for us with some of his earnings and had mailed them to our mom. She decided that Santa should give them to us as a reward for our hard work on the farm.
When the holidays started, we would go into the woods to find a Christmas tree. Normally, one pictures flat expanses of grassland when thinking of the prairies in Canada, but true prairies only occur in the southern parts of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. The farm near Garland (in western Manitoba) was in the boreal coniferous forest, so there were pine and spruce trees in the forests suitable for traditional Christmas trees.
The tree was decorated with garlands made of silver tinsel, small glass ornaments, and clip-on candleholders into which three-inch (7.5 cm) red candles were inserted. The candles were lit for short periods of time in the evenings and were watched carefully to ensure the tree did not catch fire.
A couple of days before Christmas, children would go into the granary to get a few cups of wheat which would be placed into a strong bag, sprinkled with water, and then beaten with a stick for hours to loosen the husks from the grain. The husks would be rinsed away leaving the kernels of wheat and then boiled until the grains burst open. Wheat, water, honey and poppy seeds are the primary ingredients in making the special Christmas Eve dish - a sweet grain pudding called kutia. In prosperous times, chopped walnuts were added as well. Traditionally kutia is the first dish served at dinner and was rarely made during any other time of the year.
Ukrainian Christmas festivities start on Christmas Eve, which is on January 6th (as per the Gregorian calendar). The holy supper, Sviata Vecherya, is the focus of the day. My mother prepared twelve meatless dishes and father placed some hay on the table and covered it with a tablecloth - a reminder of the manger in Bethlehem. My father would then bring in a sheaf of wheat (called the didukh) and place it in a corner of the room. Part of the sheaf was spread out under the table, and my parents would hide nuts within it. We searched for the nuts after dinner was over. What a treat!
Braided bread, called a kolach, was placed in the centre of the table. When preparations were complete, my siblings and I eagerly watched for the first star in the eastern sky. When it was observed, dinner could begin!
Times were tough in the 1930s, so presents usually consisted of handmade articles of clothing and small treats which were opened on Christmas morning. January 7th was a family day and the following day was a time for friends stopping by. We referred to the day as a “feast of carolling”. Friends and neighbours would sing together in a group and ask for donations, which were given to the church or to the poor.
I was one of twelve, young people packed into a sleigh pulled by a pair of horses bundled up under blankets, singing in the cold crisp winter air as we glided along the snow-covered country roads. When we stopped at a farmhouse we were invited inside and offered freshly baked donuts that were served in a large bowl.
In many homes, older boys were taken aside and offered a shot of vodka – something to “warm up the insides”. Carolling continued from noon until supper and then everyone would scatter to return to their homes.
January 19th, the Epiphany according to the Gregorian calendar, marked the end of holiday celebrations. Young children looked forward to this day very much. They would fill their pockets with wheat and walk down the roads to neighbouring farms. After knocking on the door and being greeted, they would recite a short verse and toss a small handful of wheat into the house. The children were usually rewarded with ten cents apiece and wishes were exchanged for a happy and prosperous season in the new year.
The Ukrainians (1892-1914) – early immigrations to Canada
Ukrainians in Canada (1900-1930) – the first three decades in Canada