I have said before in this column how lucky we are to have such a diverse ethnic heritage in the Youngstown-Warren-Sharon area. Never is this as obvious as during the Christmas season.
Cooks and bakers of all nationalities are busy creating goodies handed down from their immigrant grandparents. I learned recently of another immigrant group that I was not familiar with.
Is your heritage Polish, Czech, Ukrainian or Hungarian? If so, you may belong to a group known as the Rusyn, the name of the territory of a large medieval area centered in Kiev, now in Ukraine, known as Rus. There are many names by which Carpatho-Rusyns have called themselves; Ruthenian, Carpatho-Russian, or Carpatho-Ukrainian.
The Carpatho-Rusyn Society here in the U.S. has centers in Cleveland and Pittsburgh. Their purpose is ''to sustain, as worthy of preserving and perpetuation in their own right, the distinct culture, history, language, and heritage of the Carpatho-Rusyn people.''
The local chapter holds a re-enactment of their Christmas celebration at St. Nicholas Orthodox Church on North Road every other year with the full meal being served to the audience. Bettieanne Diles of Warren has been a member for 10 to 12 years. She reviewed the typical Christmas meal and traditions with me recently. The foods are certainly unique and the traditions are indeed memorable.
On Christmas Eve, a meatless Holy Super or Velija (veh-lee-yah) is held. This consists of a 12-course, meatless, dairy-free dinner symbolizing the 12 apostles. Family members who live out of town are expected to return for this sacred family meal.
A white tablecloth is placed on the table representing the swaddling clothes. A loaf of bread with a candle standing upright in it is placed there symbolizing the Star of Bethlehem. Under the table, hay or straw is spread to symbolize the stable where Christ was born. An extra place is always set at the table to honor a deceased loved one or to welcome a stranger who might be the Christ child in disguise.
The meal itself begins when the first star is sighted in the night sky. The job of watching for the star is given to the youngest members of the family to keep them busy while the meal is being made. Once the star is sighted, the family gathers at the table.
Prayers are said and the candle in the bread loaf is lighted and the bread shared. This is followed by the breaking and sharing of the oplatky, a wafer reminiscent of a Communion wafer, stamped with the nativity scene. This is spread with honey and is said to represent the unleavened bread of the Passover supper.
The husband of the house breaks the oplatky with his wife and offers her a kiss. The wife then breaks the oplatky with the next oldest member, they exchange a kiss until each family member has received a kiss and a piece of oplatky. This symbolizes family unity for the coming year.
The meal then begins with a toast for the New Year. Bitter soups, usually sour mushroom, split pea and sauerkraut soup is then eaten to represent the bitter bonds of slavery in Egypt.
Then a freshwater fish is served fried. Potatoes (bandurky), cabbage rolls (holubky) stuffed with mushrooms and barley or rice, bobalki (baked dough balls) in a sauce of honey and poppyseeds, pagach (a flatbread baked with potatoes and onions in the middle) and pirohy filled with prune butter, cheese, sweet cabbage or sauerkraut come next. There may also be loksa, which is like a potato pancake.
Dessert is kolaci filled with apples, nuts, poppyseed, or prune butter served along with copious amounts of coffee as the family needs to be awake to attend midnight Mass or Liturgy. A glass of red wine is shared to represent Christ at the last supper. Carols are sung, then it is off to church.
''My family observes Holy Supper even now,'' Bettieanne went on to say. ''It seems when I was little, Christmas was more family oriented and spiritual.''
Her family attended a church that followed the Julian calendar. That meant Christmas was on Jan. 7, ''so also I got to stay home from school,'' she laughed.
O'Connor is a Brookfield resident. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.