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Ukrainians who fled war set to mark first Christmas in Canada, far from loved ones

Many newcomers are women and children, separated from male members of their family

Anastasiia Tertyshna remembers sitting around the dinner table at her parents’ house in eastern Ukraine on Christmas Eve last year, cracking jokes with her husband and siblings as they ate a traditional pudding typically prepared for the holidays.

It’ll be a far different scene this year as Tertyshna marks the season in Canada, far from her husband, parents and other family after fleeing the war in Ukraine.

“I don’t know when I will be able to see them,” she says in an interview. “I wish my relatives were with me here at least. But it’s impossible.”

Tertyshna, who arrived in Mississauga, Ont., about two months ago, is among the tens of thousands of Ukrainian newcomers marking their first Christmas in Canada while worrying about the loved ones they had to leave behind.

Tertyshna says her Christmas plan this year is to call her husband in Kyiv and join virtually in a family gathering he plans to be at.

“I will see them all on video,” she says. “I will probably cry.”

In Ukraine, many mark the festive season from Jan. 6 to Jan 19, based on Orthodox calendar, with Orthodox Christmas falling on Jan. 7.

Tertyshna says while it will be hard to celebrate the holidays away from her loved ones, she hopes to participate in festivities in Canada on Christmas Day as well as on Orthodox Christmas.

On Dec. 25, she and her friends plan to visit downtown Toronto to experience Canadian Christmas traditions. On Orthodox Christmas Eve, she plans to have dinner with the family she lives with, and on the morning on Jan. 7, she hopes to visit a church in Toronto.

Some Ukrainian newcomers are planning to celebrate Christmas on Dec. 25 rather than Jan. 7 this year as a form of protest against the Russian Orthodox church, which supports Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Korzhenovska Yuliia, who arrived in Canada from Ukraine in August, says her family started discussing changing when they mark Christmas after Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula in 2014. They celebrated Christmas on Dec. 25 for the first time last year.

“Now I’m 100 per cent sure that it was a good decision for us,” she says, noting that her family’s goal was to distance themselves from Russian culture. She and her roommate will do the same this year.

“For me, Christmas on January 7th, it is reminding me more about Russian tradition,” she says. “I want to keep it far from Russia, from Russian tradition.”

Yuliia says it makes her “very sad” knowing her family won’t be around her during this holiday season, but she hopes to be able to reunite with them for next year’s holidays.

“It is really, really hard,” she says.

Ukrainian men between the ages of 18 and 60 have been prohibited from leaving the country since Russia invaded. As a result, many newcomers who arrived in Canada are women and children, separated from male members of their family.

Olya Bolshov, a mother of two children who now lives in Toronto, says it’ll be hard to celebrate Christmas while her husband remains in Ukraine but she’s putting on a brave face to show her kids that “Russian invaders” haven’t been able to steal their joy.

“We’re not really much in a celebration mood because there is a war going on in Ukraine, and all of our thoughts and prayers obviously are over there,” she says through her husband, who was on the phone and translated her words.

Bolshov recalled that recently her eight-year-old daughter asked whether it was safe for Saint Nicholas — the Ukrainian version of Santa — to travel to Ukraine and distribute gifts for children there.

“She was worried that whether or not Saint Nicholas would visit Ukraine, since Russians are bombing and there’s lots of rockets flying,” she says.

St. Demetrius Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Toronto is hoping to help Ukrainian newcomers mark the season by hosting them for a dinner service on Orthodox Christmas Eve.

Darcia Moskaluk-Rutkay, the church’s vice president, says the plan is to serve Sviat Vechir, 12 meatless dishes Orthodox Ukrainians prepare for dinner on Christmas Eve, “so they know that they aren’t forgotten.”

Moskaluk-Rutkay says many newcomer families may not be able to afford preparing the dishes or know where they can procure the spices and other ingredients needed, so the church is stepping in to serve the meal.

Born in Canada to Ukrainian parents, Moskaluk-Rutkay says her family has preserved their traditions for decades and she wants to help others to do the same.

“We as old Ukrainian Canadians and immigrants brought this to Canada and we have maintained it,” says Moshaluk-Rutkay, who is also the president of the Ukrainian Women’s Association of Canada.

“The occupiers are trying to annihilate our traditions, and it’s so important to keep up our tradition so that it continues and so that the occupiers do not win in that respect.”

—Sharif Hassan, The Canadian Press

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