Do you know what Christmas tastes like? Mine’s sweet, cool, grainy, with a flavour of honey, poppy seed, coconut and almonds, and I am intensely fond of it. It is served before the traditional Ukrainian Christmas meal, and is called, ‘kutya,’ a wheat porridge cooked only once a year. It is one of the most endearing traditions of my family, and is still made the old fashioned way.
Although the final result is gratifying, the process to prepare kutya is long and very hard work. It begins with an old pail, a scoop of dry wheat and a crude wooden instrument shaped like a square baseball bat called a makohin. The men take turns sitting at the pail, firmly securing it with their feet, vertically raising the club high, then smashing it down hard onto the seeds repeatedly to loosen the chaff. Up and down, hour after hour, on and on, they pound the kernels into oblivion, each blow echoing throughout the house until the blood in your head moves in unison to it. You try to ignore the noise or drown it out with Christmas carols, but you can’t escape it, and only faster pounding will stop the noise earlier.
It reminds me of the arduous task of Christmas shopping. Grab the pile of Post-it Note wish-lists, rush out the door into the frigid wind, zigzag through the parking lot, beat someone to a crowded spot then dash into the mall packed with slow walkers. Up and down, hour after hour, in the store, out of the store, pounding the aisles and hitting the sales racks, each sweater the wrong size, each electronic item the wrong gigabyte, until the smiling cashier’s half-hearted holiday greeting becomes part of the background noise.
The shortest day of the year isn’t Dec. 22; it’s Dec. 24, and only faster shopping will stop the noise earlier. But as the hours disappear before Santa crashes on the roof, it is an ideal time to consider how consumerism hoodwinks us.
Slick sales associates plead with you from their booths to buy their stuff for the person who “has everything.” (Like hand lotion made from the salt of the Dead Sea. Yes I tried it; no I didn’t buy it.) I think we forget that in North America we pretty much all have everything! Radio ads urge you to wrap up a car, mattress, sauna or even a new home! The Christmas shopper’s creed insists, “The closer you are to your credit limit, the greater the love for your children.” But I think the biggest marketing ploy ever, ‘buy green,’ is this year’s holiday mantra, urging you to purchase overpriced earth-friendly, wallet-shrinking paraphernalia.
In the midst of this frenzy, stop the pounding in your head long enough to hear the sweet jingling of bells and see the Salvation Army kettle half-full of change and small bills, or the Santas Anonymous box or the food bank bin. They’re reminders of the love, joy and peace that the season represents, of sacrifice, of giving to those less fortunate than ourselves, and being thankful that we live in a blessed country called Canada. Bundle up, friends, and get your shopping done, but don’t let it leave a bad taste in your mouth.