Among the more than 12 million Ukrainian refugees who have been forced to flee their country in the wake of Russia’s full-scale invasion last February, 30 or so have quietly settled in Whistler, half a world away.
Thanks to both a lively WeChat group and weekly English classes at the library, the new Whistlerites have been able to maintain a strong tether to their native culture and traditions. But as a group, they still have yet to all get together in person. That is, until Jan. 16, when the Whistler Multicultural Society (WMS), in partnership with the Whistler Public Library, will mark Orthodox New Year—and the entire community is invited, Ukrainian or not.
“It’s a very great opportunity to explain to people who live in Whistler about Ukrainian traditions and culture,” said local Ukrainian Petro Stryganyn.
Ukrainian holidays tend to be big on food, and Orthodox New Year is no exception. Food plays a central role not just on that day, celebrated Jan. 14, but the night before as well, known as Malanka. It is believed the wider the variety of food on the table, the more generous the following year will prove to be. Pork dishes are a staple, as the animal symbolizes abundance, while cooking fish is considered a bad omen, because happiness can “pour” out of the house. Comfort food is the order of the day, and it’s not unusual to serve a whole stuffed pig; kholodets, a dish made from meat in aspic; cured slabs of pork fatback called salo; and vershchaky, made from roasted pork marinated in a fermented beet beverage known as kvass.
The luxuriating continues for Ukrainian families on the 14th, who traditionally eat a dish called “Herring Under a Fur Coat,” a lavishly layered salad made from herring, onion, potatoes, carrots, beets and a healthy serving of mayo and grated egg. Stuffed fish is another common dish, as well as sprats, a small saltwater fish, served on a crispy baguette. I’m also told caviar sandwiches are a thing for Ukrainian New Year, in which case, sign me up.
With Ukrainian culture under constant, violent attack over the past year, celebrating Orthodox New Year—a holiday rich in tradition for Ukrainians also known as “Old New Year”—comes with added significance in 2023.
“This Christmas time I’m not in Ukraine and it is sometimes difficult,” Stryganyn said. “I can try to save Ukrainian traditions in this place here. I can make sure [not to] forget these traditions here.”
Kharkiv native Stas Vishnevsky echoed his countryman’s sentiment, and the chef and restaurateur is a man who knows a thing or two about the connective power of food.
“We have to celebrate the New Year even now, no matter how hard it is for us. Now is such a difficult time; we must be together, support each other, help, and the New Year is a good reason for this,” he wrote in a message, with some help from Google Translate.
Vishnevsky owns a chain of pizzerias, and since Russia’s invasion last winter, he has spent nearly every single moment of his free time preparing and delivering crucial food and supplies to Ukrainians in need—often at risk to his own safety. After profiling the 44-year-old for a cover feature about one Ukrainian-born Squamish woman’s mission to raise funds for Vishnevsky’s essential work, Pique checked in with him again ahead of the New Year.
Of course, like every Ukrainian, Vishnevsky’s holiday will look starkly different this year.
“Unfortunately, the country house, where we celebrated the New Year every year and gathered with the whole big family, was bombed completely. Therefore, this year we were all going to celebrate at home, but unfortunately, because of what is happening, there is no festive mood,” he said.
Still, Vishnevsky holds hope, confident the Ukrainian resolve that has been on full display over the past year will ultimately prevail—with the support of the international community.
“There will be a victory, and it will be our common victory with you. We will show and prove to Russia that together we are a force and they will not break us,” he wrote.
The Ukrainian New Year’s event is set for Monday, Jan. 16 from 6 to 7 p.m. at the Whistler Public Library, where members of the local Ukrainian community will talk about their New Year’s experience from back home. Join in the singing of traditional songs, enjoy some Ukrainian food and sample uzvar, a non-alcoholic drink made from dried fruit.
To learn more about donating to Vishnevsky, visit the “Sea to Sky Ukrainians” group on Facebook or email Dasha Axelsson—who has helped raise more than $35,000 for the cause—at email@example.com.