I remember this time last year how curious I was just where I would be celebrating the birth of Christ in the coming year. I had already been accepted to the Peace Corps, but I was waiting on my placement. After settling in to Ukraine in October, my thoughts quickly moved to the holiday season. I had never spent the holidays away from family or outside of the U.S., so as November turned to December, I had mixed feelings of excitement and mild depression.
I made the mistake of watching Love Actually, a Christmas movie, in early December. I thought it would help put me in the holiday spirit. I hadn’t really counted on all the cultural references to traditions I was missing, and the general theme of the importance of being home for Christmas. When the movie ended, I felt remarkably further away than ever before. But I still had enough of a sense of humor to laugh at how my best idea to cheer myself up had backfired.
As the days increased in number, and the 25th got closer and closer, my interest grew. Just what would my first Christmas in Ukraine look like? Ukraine is officially Greek Orthodox Catholic, meaning that they celebrate Christmas on January 7. I learned that I would be attending work on December 25, and this disturbed me greatly.
I pictured myself going through the day just as any other. But, I hadn’t counted on the enthusiasm of my neighbors and fellow English teachers for the American holiday. On December 23, my neighbor came over with a handwritten-note from her 14-year-old grandson, “Will you go to the Holy Supper with us tomorrow?” it said in neat, cursive letters. Her family was Roman Catholic and would celebrate Christmas on December 25. I enthusiastically accepted the invitation and my mood lightened a bit imagining that I would be at a church on Christmas Eve after all.
The dinner was served in traditional Ukrainian fashion, with gigantic portions, exactly twelve dishes, and plenty for everyone. After a delicious supper of borshch, fried fish, mushroom soup, potatoes, fresh-baked bread, beet salad, and a half a dozen more dishes I can’t remember, it was time for church in Ivano-Frankivsk, a neighboring city. The snow had been falling all day, but it picked up speed in the spirit of Christmas and I marveled at the size of the flakes falling before my eyes.
The church was absolutely packed, and we made our way to the standing-room only section on the left side of the sanctuary. As I took in the view Christmas trees and nativity sets, I listened to the hum of Ukrainian prayers offered aloud by kneeling babusyas. There was an interesting blend of the familiar and the foreign before me, and I smiled thinking of how shared experiences, no matter how small or large, bring people together. Still, I had a feeling this wasn’t going to be the most familiar of services.
Despite the fact that it was a Roman Catholic Church, I was in a different hemisphere, with a new climate, culture, and language to contend with. I said a little prayer that there would be at least one thing in the service that would make sense to me and give me a feeling of home. As I opened my eyes, the church went dark. Candles were lit and passed down the aisles. Then, the organ played Silent Night. I let out a soft chuckle. God was just showing off by opening the service like that. And it’s a good thing He did because the entire service was conducted in Polish, and I didn’t understand a word of it. I think He knew I would need the encouragement at the beginning to make it through two hours of Polish standing up.
Toward the end of the service I got another glimpse of home when we exchanged the peace. To be honest, I wouldn’t have known what was going on, but I guess I was giving off an American radar signal because a young man turned to me and said in English “Peace be with you.” I returned the sentiment in Ukrainian, and we both laughed. As we shuffled out of the church, the big wooden doors swung open and snowflakes started swirling inside.
I awoke on the next day filled with hope for my first White Christmas. I threw back the curtains with anticipation, and I was not disappointed. Trees were bent with the heavy weight of snow, and my windows had the kind of frosty frame that we buy in cans in Texas. I switched on some Christmas tunes and snapped photos from every window in my apartment before enjoying a cup of hot tea and watching the snow fall. I was awakened from my silent reverie with the reality that I had to go to work today. I bundled up, grabbed some homemade gifts for my colleagues, and started my hike to school.
I opened the door to the English Teacher’s lounge and was greeted with many wishes for a Merry Christmas. As I handed out burned CDs with Christmas carols, their faces lit up like children’s. But then the mood changed, “We didn’t get anything for you!” they cried. I assured them that their countless acts of hospitality in the past two weeks were more than sufficient, but they were unconvinced.
“We must get you a TV,” one teacher said. “And the Internet,” another chirped. “Today?” I asked incredulously. “Yes, come with me,” they said. “It’s Christmas, we’ll see what we can do.” And, in perfect Christmas-miracle fashion, by the time the school bell sounded I had both a working television and access to the Internet in my apartment.
I don’t think I’ve been this excited about a Christmas present in a long time. I’ve rediscovered the beauty of the world wide web in a way I never imagined that I could, but three months without it gives you a new perspective on the genius of Google, the immediacy of e-mail, and the wonders of 24-hour news updates.