My Ukrainian didukh comes from the heart, even though Etsy supplied the wheat

My Ukrainian didukh comes from the heart, even though Etsy supplied the wheat

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Illustration by Mary Kirkpatrick

This year I decided to make our own didukh for Christmas. This traditional Ukrainian decoration symbolizes a good harvest and is usually made from wheat, rye or oat stalks. In English, didukh means “grandfather’s spirit”, and by bringing didukh into the house on Christmas Eve, we invite our ancestors to visit us and bring their blessings. Also known as a breadfruit, it can be made from the first or last pile of corn stalks that are preserved from the summer harvest. But my wheat arrived from Etsy.

One of my first memories of didukh comes from celebrating Christmas with my grandparents in a small village in western Ukraine. On January 6, most of our Christmas Eve was spent cooking, my grandmother moved smoothly between the 12 traditional dishes, I helped with smaller tasks like painting poppy seeds in a large clay bowl for box, the main Christmas dish made from wheat, poppy seeds, honey, nuts and raisins. All dishes were made with the simplest ingredients (root vegetables, cabbage, beans, dried fruits and mushrooms, nuts and poppy seeds) and traced back to the garden or forest behind my grandparents’ house. Fruits and vegetables were harvested and foraged over the summer and fall and preserved for the winter. Each dish had a story to tell and talked about hard work and connection to the country. To this day, Christmas Eve dinner is one of my favorite dishes, so satisfying to make and delicious in its simplicity.

In the evening, I helped my grandmother set the table. When my grandfather came with a bale of hay inside and spread it on the floor, the smell of summer filled the little kitchen. My little brother and cousin dove right in and hid under the table, where they sat and soldered, barked and chuckled, which according to the Christmas story would help ensure healthy and abundant pets next year. Then didukh came in – a strong pile of wheat, soaked in spring showers and summer sunshine, tied with a red ribbon. My grandfather put it in the corner and we sat down to dinner.

When I moved to Canada with my family almost 20 years ago, we brought a lot of traditions with us. We still make 12 dishes for our Christmas Eve dinner, even though some of the more time consuming ones, such as sauerkraut-filled pirogies and holubtsi (cabbage rolls with buckwheat and mushrooms) come ready-made from a Ukrainian shop. Embroidered table runners, sourced from Ukraine, adorn our buffet. We often picked up straw and hay from a farm outside Toronto – not near enough to cover the floor, but enough to spread on the table. And we always make sure to provide an extra plate and utensils for our deceased relatives. However, I had not yet managed to make didukh.

This year, I made sure to plan ahead. I ordered dried wheat on Etsy a month before and set about researching the didukh traditions. I learned about the different ways to make it: from a simple pile, like my grandparents had in their house, to elaborate trees decorated with ribbons, dried flowers and berries. I started by separating wheat stalks into bundles of seven, symbolizing seven generations, seven days a week, and seven colors in the rainbow. I then put these bundles together, layer by layer, tied them with ribbon and added dried calendula flowers from my balcony garden until a bread tree slowly appeared. The last step is to equip it with three “legs” to stand on. It is the roots, our connection to the past and to the earth. The top of the Bread Tree is heavy with seeds that keep the promise of next year’s harvest and look forward to the future.

When I made our didukh, I thought of its journey to our table — a journey more complicated than my grandparents’ breadfruit would ever make. I thought of the hands that lost seeds in the ground, nurtured the sprouts, harvested wheat stalks, dried them, packed them, sent, and delivered to our doorstep. I considered my connection to the land on the other side of the sea, the land that nourished and shaped me, but also over what this connection means here, in this new land, on the original land where I now live as a settler.

While working on the diduk, I encouraged all my grandparents, my great-grandparents, and generations of ancestors before them to bring their stories. Some of these stories have become part of family history, others have been lost due to time and migration, yet they are all intertwined to bring me and my family here. I envisioned sitting for our Christmas Eve dinner – didukh sat proudly at one side of me, my husband and two sons at the other. And I asked myself: Am I a good ancestor? How can I be a better steward and protector of countries and waters near and far? What stories will I add to the wallpaper of this intricate life?

When the holiday is over, we take the didukh on one of our walks in the woods and burn it off. According to tradition, this releases the souls of our ancestors back to the spiritual realm and also calls for the end of winter and the beginning of spring. However, we want to preserve the seeds – and when spring comes, we saw them in our container garden. The wheat for next year’s didukh will come from our balcony, raised and cared for by our own hands and not supplied by FedEx.

Oleksandra Budna lives in Toronto.

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