A Very Ukrainian Christmas in the Carpathian Mountains

If there is one part of Ukraine that has stood the test of (Soviet) time and has retained the country's rich culture and traditions, it's the Carpathian mountain region in the West. Home to villages, folk art, and a way of life that has changed little in the past few centuries, it is one of the best places to be if you find yourself in Eastern Europe on or around January 7th, Orthodox Christmas. After arriving in our guest house in Kolomiya, we journeyed to the little town of Kosiv to meet a well-known wood-carver there, and to purchase some cheeses for our Christmas Eve dinner. While there, we had a stroll around the folk art market (for which the village is well-known), as well as it's standard daily street market:

Trying fresh sheep and cow's milk cheeses from the cute little old ladies at the market:
On our way back to Kolomiya, we stopped by a pretty little country church located across a deep gorge and river. In fact, the only way to get coffins to the cemetery there is to harness them on this contraption (below, left) and send them over the river. Definitely a sight I'd like to see:
Detail of the pounded tin that decorates the church and roof-tops around this area:
On the morning of January 6th, Orthodox Christmas Eve, Jacob and I headed out with some Ukrainians and a Russian for a 14km hike in the Carpathian hills. I predicted that there would be no way we would make it into the mountains (or their hills) on this trip because of all of the snow; however, it was clear skies and clear trekking for us all the way:
I love all of the pristine little cottages and farmyards that dot the area:
When we returned, many of the women were already stuffing vereniky (stuffed dumplings) and preparing for that night's Christmas Eve dinner:
The menfolk in their fancy Christmas duds, and the American in his fancy travel wear:
Our new Ukrainian family and friends:
And you most certainly cannot start out a meal here without plenty of vodka or wine:
In Ukraine, it is customary to serve a 12-course meatless dinner for Christmas Eve, representing the 12 apostles. Now, when we talk about home-cooked meals in the States, we usually assume that a few store-bought canned goods (or at very least, bottle of oil) was opened and used in the process. Not here, every last thing at this meal was made by Mama Ira and was made from scratch! There wasn't a can opened in her entire kitchen, and she had been literally cooking for days and all day (all the while, making breakfasts and lunches from scratch as well)! The oil she used was homemade from her neighbors. The veggies came from the market. The noodles, dumplings, and breads (and pastries) all started out as flour, eggs, and water. It was incredible.

The first course of the dinner is always kutia, a sweet whole wheat pudding made with buckwheat, honey, and sesame seeds. It was deeeeelish:
Next was borscht with vushka (smaller mushroom dumplings):
And then, the magnificent food just kept coming and coming and coming...
Ukrainians really know the true meaning of Christmas: full-on feasting with family and friends! This is Anna and Vitaliy, our hosts and friends:
Jacob was especially fond of the pampushki, which for him are New Year's Cookies that he ate growing up in a German Mennonite community. It reminded him of his grandmothers:
On Christmas Day, there is another traditional feast, this one featuring loads of meat. Jacob was summoned to help with the bread-making (and I conveniently found a Dominos pizza apron and hat to accentuate the situation):
Our new, inspiring Peace Corps friends, Laura and Jim from Las Vegas (and who are also currently working in Ukraine):
Heavenly holubki (meat and herb-stuffed cabbage rolls):
Vitaliy's home-smoked ham, using his grandfather's methods:
Besides all of the carolers who came a'knocking on the door, we also had great music and sing-alongs a plenty:
A little too much vodka, perhaps:
After an amazing sendoff at the train-station by everyone for Jacob and I (heading back to Lviv and eventually Lugansk), we both reflected on the whole weekend and decided that this was truly one of our best Christmas memories to date. A truly special time with some amazing people (and a lot of wine to overcome any language barriers). Definitely something I'll always remember, and hopefully something that we can try to recreate with our own Christmases in the future (especially food-wise...gotta get some of Ira's recipes, stat!)!

Thanks to all of our new friends down in the Carpathians for a great end to our journey!