Parishioners at All Saints Ukrainian Orthodox Church in St. Paul, as well as Orthodox denominations around the world, celebrated Christmas on Saturday, January 7. 

Tradition runs deep in Ukrainian culture. While the Nativity celebrations included the customary visiting, feasting, and carolling, the plight of those suffering the consequences of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was not far from their minds.

For Orthodox adherents, and for those who celebrated Christmas in December, this is the first Christmas since the invasion.

All Saints’ parish priest Father Peter Haugen said the war has been a cause for reflection amongst Ukrainians in Canada and around the world.

“This entire year has been a change in terms of how we reflect on our own lives,” he said. “The message from the Patriarch today speaks very plainly of the fact that war is not anything that is part of the church.

“Our calling as Christians is to be peacemakers and to assist those that are afflicted as a result of war. And there certainly is that motivation and that drive to assist.”

St. Paul is among the many Canadian communities that have welcomed Ukrainians escaping the violence in heir homeland. Some individuals and families are finding hospitality and refuge in the town, and the Ukrainian Cultural Centre in St. Paul held two fundraisers earlier this year totalling $50,000 in humanitarian relief.

Parishioner Caroline Yewchin described this year’s Feast of the Nativity as bittersweet, considering the refugee families that have been separated by the conflict. “We were happy to celebrate, but we also have really deep feelings for people [from Ukraine] who are here in Canada, experiencing a very different type of Christmas,” she said.

“Many of the men are not here,” added Caroline’s husband John. “It was just wives and family that left. And that’s where it becomes really sorrowful. They can’t celebrate because their families are split up so badly. And that’s why it’s nice in our community where they’re invited to come into our homes, and we love having them here.”

Haugen said talk at his family’s dinner table on Christmas Eve was about how the privations caused by the invasion and the subsequent war are affecting people in Ukraine.

“We had a big discussion at the table of how many people in Ukraine were without a table last night, congregating in places that they never dreamed of congregating for a holy feast like that,” he said. “And how many people are so separated from their families that they might just be connecting with them over a phone or zoom. 

“It certainly brings out a lot of emotion. Prayer is what I hope it brings out in people as well.”

Caroline Yewchin said the situation in Ukraine has motivated all kinds of people to help. “We had tremendous support from non-Ukrainians who came and said, ‘this is terrible, what can we do?’ So I think it galvanized not just the Ukrainian community but other people as well,” she said.

Haugen says that in Canada we enjoy the privilege of being far away from the conflict. He adds that there is a role for good people in a situation as terrible as war.

“My experience of war is through an iPhone and through a TV. I can’t imagine what it is like for those that live with this outside their front door, to make the choice to leave their country because they’re unsure when or where the next bomb is going to land,” he said. “I pray that it leads to some sort of understanding of good in this world.”

That, he said, is the role of the church for Ukrainians in the homeland and in the worldwide diaspora. 

“I do think there’s a great role of the Church in uniting Ukrainians, not just Ukrainians in Ukraine, but Ukrainians around the world,” he said. “

Parishioners gathered for the Nativity Of Our lord service at All Saints Ukrainian Orthodox Church on Saturday. JEFF GAYE
Father Peter Haugen conducted the service, and Caroline Yewchin directed the church choir. Caroline and John Yewchin welcomed people for a luncheon after church, and everyone went out carolling afterward. Photos by JEFF GAYE