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Facts & Arguments

I loved having two Christmases, but mostly, I loved hearing about how they used be, Rita Davies writes

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I am sitting at the Formica table in our little kitchen, which doubles as my mother's workspace, watching her cook. The table is full of dishes such as ekra, baked eggplant chopped and fried with garlic, tomatoes and onions.

I have my mother all to myself in the kitchen.

My fingers are sticky from hvorst, my favourite Russian Christmas treat, a deep-fried pastry covered with icing sugar that my mother stayed up late last night to make. Hvorst means twigs and the long fingers of pastry dusted with white sugar look like little tree branches covered in snow.

Tonight is Russian Christmas Eve, which always comes two weeks after what we called Canadian Christmas. Not quite 10, I feel lucky to have two Christmas celebrations. I lick my fingers and pick up my cup. I am drinking tea with lemon from one of the cups and saucers brought from our faraway home – one of the few remnants of our life before we became stateless refugees.

The tea set is precious and rarely used, gold roses hand painted on translucent bone china. Taking care to be gentle, I add a spoonful of jam for a sweetener, as is the Russian custom, and lift the cup to my lips, blowing to cool it before taking a sip. My silver spoon is also special and not for every day: engraved when I was born with my name, Marguerite, and a daisy on the handle.

It's a happy moment, being alone with Mamushka in the kitchen. The air is rich with delicious cooking smells. My mother puts the finishing touches on the beef Wellington, placing a star-shaped piece of pastry on top, spreading egg whites over the surface and sliding it into the hot oven. Wiping the flour off her hands with a cloth, she sits down beside me.

Her eyes are bright. She smiles and reaches over to cup my chin in her hand. then lazily strokes my unruly hair, coiling a strand into a curl. A glass of vodka has appeared in front of her. As she's about to light a cigarette, I grab her hand and kiss it. I am happy and want her to know how much I love her. Then, as I do every year, I beg for a story about Christmas when she was a little girl.

"Ritachka," she says, as she lights up, "when I was your age, Christmas back home was like a fairy story. You cannot imagine."

From the small window overlooking Eglinton Avenue in Toronto, the gathering gloom of the early January evening is sending barred shadows through the venetian blinds.

"For days there were preparations," she said. "My mother and the servants kept busy cooking, making all the Russian Christmas foods. Assembly lines of women worked all day in the kitchen and around the dining room table, rolling out dough and filling it for pilimeni.

"My brother and I would creep under the long tablecloth in the dining room where we stayed hidden, listening to the women's stories as they made hundreds and hundreds of the little dumplings.

"Your Baba was so busy she didn't notice when my brother and I slipped outside and ran down to the river. By then it was frozen solid and we could skate or slide on the ice for hours."

"But tell me about the tree," I plead, impatient.

"We weren't allowed anywhere near the dining room when the tree was being decorated. My little brother and I had to wait for hours outside the closed door," she says. "Not even a little peek. At the magic moment, the double doors were flung open. The tree was covered with real candles, all lit up, shining as bright as stars in heaven."

She clasps her hands behind her head and, tipping her head back, eyes closed, her face is transformed to the little girl standing in awe in front of the fairy-tale Christmas tree.

I close my own eyes and imagine the enchantment of that scene. Then I think about our own small tree in our tiny living room that doubles as my parents' bedroom and wish we had a tree that filled a huge dining room to its ceiling, that our tree had real candles instead of a store-bought electric string of lights.

Everything in my mother's stories about Harbin – the city in northern China where tens of thousands of Russian refugees fled from war and revolution – is tinted with romance, making my world seem drab and colourless.

"What about sledding on the frozen river? And the troikas with their bells? And getting your tongue stuck on the frozen iron fence?" I pester. But, from the living room comes the sound of the front door opening. Baba is back from church. My mother stands up and checks the oven. "Not now," she says, "Not now."

Each year, as I prepare my Russian Christmas Eve feast, I remember my mother's stories and how she ached for a home she would never see again. Soon, my sister will arrive with the ekra; we split the cooking now. I remove the hvorst from the pan and dust it with icing sugar, ready to share this treat from my mother's childhood with my grandchildren and family.

Rita Davies lives in Toronto.