My fondest childhood memories revolve around Christmas Eve at my grandparents' farm. Christmas was celebrated on January 7, according to the Julian calendar, per Orthodox tradition. So on the evening of January 6, the large extended family gathered at Baba and Zedo's for the traditional Christmas Eve meal. Since it was winter, there was usually snow on the ground outside, but inside Baba's kitchen it was warm and welcoming. Straw was spread on the floor.
Several tables were set up in the large farmhouse kitchen. Upon each table was a small sheaf of wheat. Smaller children were seated at one of the tables; adults at the others. My grandmother, and probably some of my aunts, had been cooking all day. The meal was "lenten" - that is, no meat or animal fats. But it remains to this day the best food I have ever tasted. Traditionally there were 12 dishes served, to symbolize the 12 apostles.
The ceremonies began at sundown. Before dinner, Zedo would take a pogaca, drizzled with honey, out to the barn where it would be fed to the animals. This was to honor the animals who were the first to see the baby Jesus. Only boys were allowed to accompany him, and my cousin Andy told me that Zedo instructed him to feed a piece of bread to each of the animals. Andy said that what he remembers most was how quiet and calm the animals were. Even the most fractious of the horses accepted the bread quietly. All during this, Zedo was reciting prayers. Afterwards he and Andy stopped at the watering trough (brrrr...cold!) and washed their hands and faces before returning to the house. He remains moved by this ceremony to this day. After dinner, Zedo would toss coins and candy in the straw on the floor and all the children would go scrambling for them.
My mother and I revived a modified version of the tradition some years ago, and invited friends to partake of what my mother called "peasant food" but was enjoyed by all.
Many of the dishes involved the use of zaprakash, or onions sauteed in vegetable oil, with flour added to thicken, or no flour at all, just the onions and oil. It is surprising how this simple combination tastes so good.
Please excuse my phonetic spelling for the Rusyn words in this post. Corrections are welcome.
For more about Rusyn Christmas traditions, please see http://www.carpatho-rusyn.org/customs/c%26ny.html
The bread recipe below was called pogaca(?) and was baked as a round loaf. After baking, it was drizzled with honey and placed on the table so everyone could tear off pieces to soak up the zaprakash from the other dishes. Thanks to my cousin Sonia Mickey Janson for the recipe
Pogaca or Pitpolak
2 pkgs dry yeast
1/2 cup warm water
1 tsp sugar
1/2 cup oil
2 cups warm water
1 tsp salt
1/4 cup sugar
6-7 cups flour
1. Dissolve 2 pkgs. dry yeast in 1/2 cup warm water. Add 1 tsp. sugar. Set aside.
2. Mix together 1/2 cup oil, 2 cups warm water, 1 tsp. salt, and 1/4 cup sugar. Add yeast mixture. Add 6 to 7 cups flour and knead well. You may need more flour to form a bulk dough.
3. Let rise in oiled bowl until doubled in bulk. Punch down and let rise again.
4. Form into 2 rounds and place each on oiled round pizza pan. Let rise well.
5. Bake in 350 oven for 30 minutes.