You Dirty Cossack Bastard!

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Today is Orthodox Christmas. And yes, you may wish me a Merry Christmas. Also, feel free to send gifts. Cash or athletic socks are the traditional Orthodox Christmas gifts.

I was raised in the Christian Orthodox faith. My mother was Ukrainian Orthodox and my father Russian Orthodox. Essentially the same religion, except for the fact they hated each other.

Like our Roman Catholic brethren, Orthodox Christians held mass, practiced confession and communion and were (still are) consumed by guilt. The big difference between the two churches, as my late mother used to say, was that the Roman Catholics “reported to the Pope,” as if there was some sort of all-encompassing, ecclesiastical org chart flowing down from the heavens.

If I could, I’d explain why Orthodox Christmas is on January 7, but I can’t.  It has something to do with the difference between the Julian and Gregorian calendars (you probably didn’t know there were two calendars), the winter solstice and the sacrifice of small farm animals. All I know is that growing up, there was “our” Christmas and “American” Christmas. On American Christmas, I received gifts from Santa Claus.  January 7th was reserved for the religious celebration of Christmas. And hatred.

The highlight of every Orthodox Christmas was Christmas dinner, hosted by my mother. It was a special time when my extended Russian and Ukrainian families came together to share “holy supper”, loathe each other and compete for the honor of ruining Christmas for everyone. Ours was a special loathing, fueled by centuries of cultural animus.  And bad whiskey. Yes, every holy supper began (and continued) with the sharing of shots of whiskey, accompanied by beer chasers. My father claimed this tradition was from the Bible, but he was hard-pressed to find the particular passage, especially considering we didn’t own a Bible. Even the children were given a small amount of whiskey. For good luck, according to the Bible.

I remember thinking, even at a young age, that if there was a cut-off, if my father stopped pouring the “sacred” liquid halfway through dinner, we might have a chance to salvage the evening. But if nothing else, dad was a committed to obeying the holy word of the Bible he never read and didn’t own. And he continued to pour.

And the loathing continued apace until, almost like clockwork, my Ukrainian grandmother brought our special, annual family gathering to a grinding halt. For no reason, she would point a crooked, arthritic finger at my father and, as if possessed by some demonic force (we were quick to deny the role of hard liquor in family dramas), she would growl: “You dirty Cossack bastard.” (To those of you who are history-challenged, the Cossacks were a sort of paramilitary group. There were Ukrainian and Russian Cossacks and they did their best to reign as much misery as possible on the other).

Insults and grievances aired, our visitors grumbled and cursed each other as they gathered their coats and made for the door. “I’ll never do this again,” someone would say under their breath, but loud enough for all to hear. To which my mother would respond: “Don’t worry, because we’ll never invite you.” But, of course, we did invite them and we did do it again. And we sat together at the table to celebrate the birth of the “Orthodox Christ” by sharing bad whiskey over and over again. Because, as Tevye says in “Fiddler on the Roof,” it’s TRADITION!  That and the Bible said we should.