Jesse Tiese

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Our son Xander is six, and every year, he gets two Christmases. It’s not because his father Dallas and I are overindulgent— although we are overindulgent. Between Xander being a late-in-life child, an only child, and his dad being a completest collector who would be buying all the toys anyway, there’s no way around it. But he’s a good boy, a loving and appreciative child, and plus, we’ve got a great excuse.

Dallas is full-blooded Ukrainian. I am half Ukrainian—except that’s a lie. I’m actually a quarter Ukrainian... I just always say half, because frankly, it makes me feel sexier. The full-Ukrainian portion of my relatives are unquestionably the hottest, and there’s little pervy online clamoring for German-Scottish-Swedish online brides for sale. In the past, I have occasionally been part Italian or Greek as well, depending on the company and how potentially impressed they might be.

However strong or tepid our lineage, pride in his Ukrainian heritage is something Dallas and I both felt instinctively compelled to instill in our son from the beginning—and there’s no time like the holidays. Dallas and I both came from homes where holiday traditions were present, but fluctuating. My mother’s peppermint brownies. My brother and I having the “bad” stuffed animal, Raggedy Andy, dress up in camouflage, and set a trap to catch Santa each year, only to find him caught in his own trap Christmas morning. The Nativity’s baby Jesus hidden each year and replaced so the stars in the sky, looked down where he lay, the little Lord Yoda (or Ninja Turtle or Barbie head or gummy worm) asleep on the hay. While our memories were mainly good, Dallas and I both felt a longing for the more elaborate and ritualistic, and wanted to create something from our shared culture that would define our new family’s personal history.

For Xander, and in part to delight Dallas’s now-departed father, we’ve held and expanded on a Ukrainian Christmas every year since X was born. Each year, like a damn boss, I cook foods Xander won’t even touch yet: holubtsi, pierogi, kolach bread, kutya, and pampushka with prune, apricot, and poppy seed filling. I can do more with beets than I care to admit. All root vegetables are my bitches now.

January 6 is Ukrainian Christmas Eve. Traditionally, hay is put under the table, which is set up good and fancy. (No offense to Jesus and the manger, but we generally skip the hay: Momma has allergies.) Braided bread and candles are placed on top, and a place is set for any relative recently departed, which is a little ghoulish and exciting, as is placing a candle in the window to welcome in any lost souls. (Within reason. We live in Southeast.)

After a prayer of thanks, Kutya is passed around. Kutya is like a nasty warm Grape-Nuts-bubble tea concoction, made with hulled wheat, honey, ground poppy seed, and chopped nuts. The good news is, you only have to take one bite. Then, get ready: Hope you like beets, cabbage, and pickled everything, because that’s what you’re getting, and tons of it.

Ded Moroz, or Grandfather Frost, delivers presents that night, to be discovered the next morning, January 7. (Note: This is not technically or historically accurate—but I feel like eating the kutya buys us some leeway.) Grandfather Frost has undergone multiple changes and incarnations throughout Russia and the former Soviet Union. Sometimes he’s thin, wears a gray suit, and gives presents away on New Year’s Eve, when he feels like it. Sometimes he has his smoking hot granddaughter with him. Sometimes he’s a tiny Jesus, and sometimes he delivers presents on December 6. Our household’s Grandfather Frost looks kind of like 1970s Kenny Rogers, dressed in blue velvet robes with white fur trim. Instead of cookies, he’s a big fan of every last bite of all the leftover kutya. Present-wise, he tends to leave fewer than Santa, but he’s especially good at bringing the hugely desired items that Santa forgot the month previous. He also tends to find these items at heavily reduced post-Christmas prices.

Xander knows that, besides the many other wonderful things he is and will be, he is part of a culture and heritage with its own history and traditions. He is American, Canadian, and three-quarters Ukrainian (or okay, five-eighths, depending on who you ask). It’s something that both includes him in something larger and singles him out as unique. He’ll have foods, items, and activities that create a sense of home at Christmas, and the security of predictability. The holidays will have certain flavors and smells (some of them gross), that he can anticipate and recognize. And: We get to justify leaving every last one of our Christmas lights and decorations up. Well into January.

You can listen to Daria Eliuk Monday through Friday from 3 to 7 pm on 105.1 The Buzz.