Christmas 2020 was similar to Christmas 1987. Long before the pandemic, it was its own version of “Schitt’s Creek.” A year ripe with divorces, double-digit interest rates, and bankruptcies.
In my third year of marriage, surrounded by our own challenges at the time, I decided to create a quasi Christmas dinner/party that celebrated the goodness that flowed during 1987 outside of the Mount Vesuvius of crap that became its narrative. It was affectionately named “Cossack Christmas” by one of our guests. That year it became clear to me how easy it is to see the dark. We’re programmed for it and how effortful it is to see the light. I did not fathom that this one-off idea would go strong for 30 years, becoming the benchmark for many to open the festive season, but it did precisely that.
At its core, it was about friendships and counting one’s blessings. Christmas can be a time of high emotions and old programming. It’s no wonder that there are arguments and expectations. Our flaws are what connects us, and yet they are ions away from what the season dictates. Sharing it with close friends removes all of that. We can pick our friends but not our family. That was Cossack Christmas. Hosting a nucleus of people, some not seeing each other throughout the year, picking up where they left off. Every year, a few new people were brought into this circle of Willy Wonka love. The rules were simple. Bring a toy for a local children’s charity, an appetizer, and a sense of humour. What you did for a living was left at the front door. You could only bring who you are to an evening of laughter and spirited conversation—both magnificent for one’s mental health and stomach muscles.
My first Cossack started with a feast in an Eastern European tradition for around a dozen people. One of my mother’s embroidered tablecloths graced a table with makeshift pots, bowls or plates I could muster as serving dishes. I went with a full out Slovak menu, which included cabbage rolls. Overestimating the filling to such a degree, I ended up making hundreds that night, our house reeking of cabbage. The shelter that received them was grateful. To this day, I’ve not been anywhere near cabbages or cabbage rolls.
After a successful first night, we decided to recreate it the following year, which then went on for 29 more—no gifts, just food, friends and laughter. Any mascara worn that evening would be smudged by evening’s end, from crying from intense laughter. Each year, I would leave the soiree for a few minutes midway through the evening and go upstairs where I was alone, letting my senses fill with the intoxicating melding scents of cologne, food and cedar. The jazzy Christmas music’s vibration played as the raised decibels of laughter and conversation imbued into our walls. Only then did I realize the seriousness of what my husband and I had created—a home filled with more people than it could house all dialled into love.
The invitations would go out in late October, and without fail, the rsvp’s would return within minutes, all attending. This motley crew of accomplished people who got to be kids at Cossack were quick to reply. The incredible appetizers of international flair reflected the diverse crowd. Instead of saying Grace, I ended up playing a song that had the same sentiment, like Bobby McFerrin singing “Brief Eternity” or “Say Ladeo.”
We had no control over the weather, but somehow, like Moses parting The Red Sea, we were spared freezing rain and blizzard conditions every first Saturday in December. Sometimes, I walked through the crowd of people to go to the front window and quietly nod in gratitude to the Universe while taking a peek outside. The stillness of the snow gently falling only to turn around and glance back into a room filled with excitement, twinkle lights, and festive music swaying in the apple cinnamon-infused air.
At one point, I did a sit-down table, including in its decorations small round foiled covered chocolates. No sooner people sat down; those things were being pitched from one side of the table to the other. I found them days later melted behind our radiators or in the corners of the room. I strived to create a more subdued Martha Stewart on CBD oil approach and ended up with Animal House. With attendance growing, we birthed a buffet style, which had its own comedy.
Another time, I hired young classically trained music students to generate some income during December, but it petered out having to field requests like Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin or Talking Heads on their violins and cellos.
I cooked the main course each year, infusing my energy and love into all the varied culinary dishes. A stunning dessert table surfaced annually out of nowhere that needed to be significantly pared back to avoid diabetes from setting in. The entire evening was magical because it was easy and fun. It was about being. The mountain of toys acquired serviced a much needed local charity beyond their expectation. It was the official opening to the Christmas season.
Our guests would often ask what to wear, and I would reply with “clothes.” It didn’t matter, but some years I had fun with it. One year, in particular, I requested that everyone wear a black tie, not knowing what to expect. Everyone showed up dressed to the nines; the romance in the room was palpable. The men handsome and debonair, the women stunning. It wasn’t a grandiose uptight event, but cozy and warm. That particular year it was dripping in intimacy, and I’m sure every couple saw action that night when they got home.
We renewed our vows at one of our later Cossack Christmases. Not wanting gifts or cards, instead peppered with affectionate wisecracks and jokes that abounded while Annie Lennox and Al Green’s “Put A Little Love In Your Heart” played in the background.
After years of hosting this unique festive occasion, it was time to bid it adieu. My hands were no longer nimble with pain experienced in both. The effort and time also elements I could no longer sustain. Deep down, I knew a time would come where I would have to retire Cossack and that it would make itself evident to me, and it did, but what a beautiful ride. Though some years seemed iffy as to whether the event would unfold, miracles would surface to bring it about.
During these times of a pandemic, I would have been angry to have had a virus shut down something so special. Instead, I got to give it a fitting farewell by announcing our last one a few years ago. Not hosting since then, I still receive emails from people sharing how significant an event it was for them. What a gift for my husband and me to be the custodian of such an event.
It’s been three years now that I am entering our pared-back holiday season, strangely in line with the pandemic—void of previous details except for the spirit itself. Since we retired Cossack Christmas, our celebrations have become intimate in a different way. I find myself reverting to my childhood, where we celebrated St. Nicholas, the Patron Saint of children who also looked after the needy. Our home housing a customary bowl filled with traditional chocolate coins covered in gold and silver foil alongside citrus. How timely to refocus on that. With food deficiency being at an all-time high, never has there been a more critical time to recognize St. Nicholas in his most real sense. Taking the intention of Cossack Christmas outside of its original parameters and transcending its essence.
There was no shopping or decorating this year, not even a tree. I reflected on the memories of previous Cossack Christmases, nestled in the nurturing holiday spirit, not the physical chattels that promote it. In place of presents, money was spent on feeding those who can’t fathom a gift. Being in the shadow of their hunger. I am committed to recognizing Christmas as an everyday event. If you can find that spirit in your heart without all the accoutrements, then you can hold onto it for 365 days. Without that, how can you ever expect to have it on the 25th?
COVID has changed a lot serving as an accelerant to show how fractured things are. It’s easy to end the year distraught that 2020 sucked. Like 1987 it had its challenges, but it’s in the challenges that we expand, eclipsing them into opportunities. And that is a gift. No bows, or stuff following a year of pandemic culling, just paying it forward in the spirit of the Christmas light.
When this official season comes around next year, I will be focused on acknowledging our neighbours and helping those in need reflecting the original strong intention of love and generosity echoed three decades before in what was once Cossack Christmas.