In the January 1930 edition of Vozhd’ | The Leader, Emil Kubek published his short story “Merry Christmas” (Christos Raždajetsja), which takes place on January 6 (Eastern-rite Christmas Eve) in the town of “M…”. In the center of the town is a grocery store, the second floor of which serves as the home for the Bukovage family. The father, Andrei Bukovage, is a 52-year-old miner, whose difficult childhood has hardened his character and made him interested in nothing but money.
Kubek’s “Ebenezer Scrooge”
Andrei is a bit of a Carpatho-Rusyn Ebenezer Scrooge. When his wife wants to buy a piece of property outside of town, Andrei refuses and opts to live in housing subsidized by the mines. When his former priest advocated for the construction of a parish school, Andrei leads the charge against the idea. But the conflict that thematically structures “Merry Christmas” emerges when his son, Vasilko, wants to study in a university, and Andrei not only refuses to pay for school but throws Vasilko out of the house for disobeying his father’s wishes. However, just as Scrooge undergoes a transformation by the end of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” Andrei Bukovage also learns the true meaning of Christmas, at least from Kubek’s point of view: that education allows Carpatho-Rusyns to protect and appreciate their Eastern-rite traditions, and that humility reigns in the self-centered excesses that create divisions within families and between different peoples.
The Rusin Elite Society
These themes resonate with the orientation of the literary magazine in which “Merry Christmas” appeared. Vozhd’ | The Leader was the organ of the Rusin Elite Society, which was established in 1927 in Cleveland, Ohio, by the Reverend Joseph Hanulya. Vozhd’s editor Rev. George Hritz outlined the purpose of the literary magazine and the organization in the first issue on October 1, 1929:
The Rusin Elite Society and the “Leader” was not founded to serve private interests. Love of our catholic religion and eastern rite, love of our Rusin people inspired both. Neither did rivalry or competition to other already existing and flourishing organizations have any part in the setting into motion of the forces that stand behind the R.E.S. and the “Leader”. The R.E.S. has nothing to do with the insurance system, it’s purpose is to insure the cultural future of our Rusin boys and girls.
In their second issue published on November 1, 1929, the magazine listed Kubek among its “latest subscribers.”
The Parable of the Prodigal Son
Kubek constructs “Merry Christmas” as a retelling of the parable of the prodigal son, a connection which Kubek evokes a number of times throughout the text. But in Kubek’s world, it is Andrei the father, not Vasilko the son, who has lost his way. When Vasilko leaves the Bukovage house, Andrei “looked through the window at the departing (but not prodigal [ne bludno]), rashly exiled son.” In many Slavic languages, the term “prodigal” (bludnyi) comes from the verb “to fornicate,” “to wander,” or “to be lost” (Carpatho-Rusyn: bludyty, Ukrainian: bludyty, Russian: bludit’, Slovak: blúdiť). In essence, the root signifies that one has willingly or unwillingly strayed from the proper path. In his Church Slavonic-Hungarian-Russian-German Dictionary (1906), Kubek includes entries for bludilishche (“whore house”), bluditi (“to be dishonest,” “to get lost”), and bludnyi (“inconsistent,” “profligate,” “sinful,” “immoral,” “nasty”). By describing Vasilko’s departure as “not prodigal” (ne bludno), Kubek calls attention to the fact that while Vasilko leaves his father’s house, it is the “prodigal” father who has acted unjustly. Later in the story, Andrei undergoes a change of heart, confesses that he is “not ashamed to say that I was in the wrong (v blud’i),” and describes himself as “a parishioner who wants to lead to the right path those who have lost their way (napraviti bludivšich).”
The Town of M…
While Kubek’s narrator insists that the town of M… is “a purely fictional town,” some of its features are clearly drawn from two real cities: Mahanoy City and Mount Carmel, Pennsylvania. The model for Andrei Bukovage’s store seems to be John Žinčak Smith’s grocery store, which was located at 417-419 West Centre Street in Mahanoy City, where, like the Bukovage family, the Smiths also lived on the second floor until 1908. John Smith, like Andrei, was also from “upper Zemplin county,” and, just as Vasilko went off to university, four of Smith’s sons (Augustine, Nicholas, Emmanuel, and Vladimir) all attended Columbia University.
At the same time, the long narrative digressions about the rift between the Greek Catholic and newly formed “Orthodox” church in town bears a strong resemblance to the split within St. Mary’s Byzantine Catholic Church. In 1923, a number of families with roots in Galicia left St. Mary’s to form St. Nicholas Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. The group was led, in part, by John Kaczmarczyk, who had just been reelected on December 24, 1922 to St. Mary’s church board. When the Lemko-Rusyns and Ukrainians from St. Mary’s officially organized a parish on January 7, 1923 (Eastern-rite Christmas day), the church board unanimously voted to expel Kaczmarczyk from its membership. In the protocols of St. Mary’s Byzantine Catholic Church, Mikhail Biloveshchik argued that “John Kaczmarczyk cannot be one of our curators because he has opposed our church and is organizing a different church” (March 8, 1923). In “Merry Christmas,” Kubek describes how the “Orthodox” church “broke off from its old church […] because the parish meeting didn’t elect as a curator one of their most esteemed countrymen who was from the same village as they were.” Kubek’s framing of the dispute as one of regional differences resonates with the wide-spread factionalism between the Rusyns who immigrated from Subcarpathian Rus’ (largely members of St. Mary’s) and Galicia (who left to form St. Nicholas’).
Kubek obscures this reference by drawing upon Mount Carmel’s famous “church row” for his description of the two churches:
One beautiful Irish church with a large school under the direction of monks brings beauty to the town, although truth be told there aren’t that many Irish families. Not far from it is the Greek Catholic Church, and two Protestant houses of worship. At the end of the street is bashfully concealed a small “Orthodox” church, as if it was languishing under the weight of its many, heavy towers. […] The Greek Catholic Church, although three times bigger than the “Orthodox” one, is only adorned with two towers, and therefore the Orthodox make fun of our people, and our people make fun of them because they don’t have a priest. And so both sides exist “in peace”!
However, that the town of M… has “no more than four and a half thousand residents” makes it considerably smaller than both Mahanoy City and Mount Carmel in the 1920s and 1930s. Thus, in the final analysis, we should take Kubek at his word that the town is fictional, but one which would have immediately reminded Carpatho-Rusyns in Mahanoy City of locales within their own community.
By Emil Kubek
In the town of M . . ., on the corner of Centre and Main Streets, stands a typical, two-story house, like the ones we can see everywhere in Pennsylvania’s small towns. The house is a nice one, recently painted, and with clean, full shutters in the windows. The ground floor is set up as a storefront, and on a large, wooden sign, in golden letters, shines the inscription: “Andrew Bukovage’s Gen. Store”. The windows, from both sides of the store doors, are very tastefully filled with goods; one window has meat of all sorts, in another there are food supplies, roots, vegetables, baked goods, and other things, and in every window stands an illuminated Christmas tree with a picture of Santa Claus and lettering reading “Merry Christmas” and “Christos Raždajetsja – Christ is Born!”
If somebody would momentarily glance in these windows, even if they didn’t already know it, they would have to guess that Rusyns live in this town because all the other Christians already celebrated Christmas two weeks ago.
There are no more than four and a half thousand residents in the city. One beautiful Irish church with a large school under the direction of monks brings beauty to the town, although truth be told there aren’t that many Irish families. Not far from it is the Greek Catholic Church, and two Protestant houses of worship. At the end of the street is bashfully concealed a small “Orthodox” church, as if it was languishing under the weight of its many, heavy towers. There are only eight families that belong to the church, which broke off from its old church fifteen years ago. It’s true, they had a very good reason to do it because the parish meeting didn’t elect as a curator one of their most esteemed countrymen who was from the same village as they were. Now they would be more than happy to return, but are ashamed to. Sometimes one priest would come from the surrounding area to serve them, other times it would be a different one. They couldn’t retain a teacher, and so their children didn’t know anything about their faith, the church, or God himself. So they “simply live” and die without this knowledge.
The Greek Catholic Church, although three times bigger than the “Orthodox” one, is only adorned with two towers, and therefore the Orthodox make fun of our people, and our people make fun of them because they don’t have a priest. And so both sides exist “in peace”! The “Uniates” don’t have their own school, and don’t want one. Their previous priest urged them to not let their children fall into ignorance about the church and their people, but in order to build a school, you need money. The people would have happily agreed, but the gentlemen of the church board didn’t want to hear anything about it. The priest called a special meeting to discuss this matter and appealed to the sound reason of the believers. Just as the majority began to vote for the school, somebody cried out from the audience: “Hey! Brothers! Does this mean that nuns are going to read the Epistle and sing memorial services and funerals for us?!”
With this trick he broke the dam. The people became agitated, and the opponents of the school began to yell out: “We don’t want it, we won’t allow nuns to teach our children! An evening school is good enough . . . The kids don’t know anything anyway!” . . . . . . . . Moreover, they started to accuse the priest of betraying their faith, rite, and Christ himself! And they threw the priest out because he was a troublemaker, disturbed the peace, and introduced new ways. It’s true that they had other reasons too. The priest was very curious, and, as such, wanted to know about all of the church’s finances, and this rubbed people the wrong way. Additionally, the priest of course wanted – if the church’s leadership would allow – to replace Matins with a special Liturgy for the children and the elderly who couldn’t come to the Divine Liturgy, but the church board “with the power vested in them by God” opposed such a “betrayal of the old ways” and plotted to tear off the priest’s robe if he dared to disobey their order. The reason?! The only people who showed up to Matins were the priest, cantor, and the sexton in addition to two or three old ladies. The church board, these “leaders” of the church, priest, and people, opposed the idea because they were afraid that they would be expected to go to the first service as well.
Since they don’t have their own school, some children go to public school, others go to the Irish school. And none of them go to church because even the adults hardly make it to Liturgy. The children only mock the evening school. So some fall into atheism, others into the hands of the Irish. This is the fate of our unfortunate Rusyns! The facts testify to it!
* * *
But now we have already learned enough about the town of our story, and we can begin the story itself. Everyone should be confident that this is neither related to a person nor a town but is a purely fictional town!
* * *
Above the store on the second story of the building in a nicely decorated front room, stands a ceremoniously set table. Near the window is a decorated Christmas tree. The table is set for five. At four of the places are boxes wrapped with ribbons, obviously Christmas presents. It is already a bit dark, it’s already seven. Even though it’s Christmas Eve, customers are still coming to the store so that everyone could meet their last minute needs for Christmas. Four people work in the store: Mrs. Bukovage, her two daughters, and one butcher.
“Annie! Go and see if father has already come home from the mine. It’s time to settle down and sit down for Christmas dinner,” said Mrs. Bukovage.
Annie, the fourteen-year-old girl, had just rushed to the doors when a miner in his work clothes entered the store and – not even paying attention to the customers – loudly greeted everyone. “Christos raždajetsja! Christ is born! Merry Christmas!” “Slavite! Glorify him!” everyone responded to Mr. Bukovage.
“We’ve been waiting for you,” his wife said to him. “Go and get ready because dinner is ready and it’s time to close the store!”
The owner went up to the second floor, they took care of the last customers, wished the last worker a merry Christmas, gave him and his wife their presents, closed the store and happily rushed upstairs to their living room, where the father had washed up and was ceremoniously waiting for them. And they all quickly gathered together.
They lit the Christmas tree, and after a prayer, sat down for dinner. On one side of the table sat the father, on the other side was the mother, on the third side were the girls, but the fourth side, though it also had a table setting as if they were still waiting for somebody, remained empty.
The mother passed out the presents to her husband and daughters, and they also gave her their presents. The girls screamed out of happiness, thanked their parents for their generous kindness, but somehow you could tell that neither the girls’ nor the parents’ smiles were natural and were instead a bit forced. Later, when they were eating, everyone secretly looked at the empty chair. They ate in silence, as if it wasn’t food but tears, which they kept to themselves.
They all breathed a small sigh of relief when from afar the doorbell rang. Annie ran down to open the doors. The cantor with a group of schoolchildren came to sing Christmas carols. They were led inside, where they sang their carols, and the family wished them a merry Christmas and happy New Year and sent them home with presents.
After the carolers left, Mr. Bukovage set his dinner aside, his wife put him in his chair, put her head on the table and quietly but sorrowfully cried. The girls looked at each other, quietly went to their mother so their father didn’t hear her, and consoled her.
“Oh! How unhappy I have been all these years! Your father is so reserved, he’s as hard as a rock. . . and he has forgotten about us himself. . .” sorrowfully whispered Mrs. Bukovage.
“Oh mother, he hasn’t forgotten us . . . he hasn’t . . . sometimes we write to each other . . . If you only knew, mother, how he lovingly writes about you! And his heart hasn’t even hardened towards father either. . . he’ll come, he’ll come, mother, because he’s just finished school and is supposed to be on break . . .”
Mr. Andrew Bukovage, although he doesn’t look older than 45, only just turned 52. He is originally from upper Zemplin County. During the time of cholera, while still a boy, he was left an orphan. He was dragged from the caresses of good people while he was only a child and wasn’t taken into the service. He didn’t spend his youth in luxury; he walked through thorns more than through flowers, and never learned how to smile or to be happy. Maybe this is why now he is so taciturn, reserved, merciless, even towards his own family. He never went to school but was never a servant to anyone, especially during the war. His only passion was money! After thirty years he came to America, and very cheaply because to buy his passage on the ship he worked in the boiler room. He found work in this town in the mines, where he endlessly earned money and didn’t spend anything out of stinginess. After many years in America he hadn’t been to confession either because there wasn’t a church in the town, and the nearest parish was three hours away by train and he would have had to save up to pay his way. After he had a bit of savings, he met a poor single girl and married her. Suffice it to say that the wife’s life with such a man was not easy or happy.
Children arrived, but the father didn’t change or become softer.
The company expanded the mine, and so as not to build new houses for the workers, it split up its property into plots of land and sold them to the workers for $50 so that they could build their own housing. But Andrei didn’t want to hear about buying a lot. So Mrs. Bukovage bought two lots herself.
“If you bought these lots, then what would you do with them?” Andrei often thought.
She worked, did the laundry, kept boarders, and, as a result, was hardly able to keep up with the house.
Back then, the town was so small that there wasn’t a store and they had to bring products by cart from the next town over. Mrs. Bukovage decided to open a store, and opened it up without the help of her husband, even against his will. The town began to grow along the main street, and along with it the store’s business grew as well.
The children went to school and studied well. The oldest son finished elementary school and wanted to go to high school, but his father didn’t want to hear anything about that, and demanded that Vasilko went to work in the mines with him. More than once he would say: “I don’t know how to read or write and I can live just like this, I earn money, but he wants to be a gentleman? No! But, of course, if he wants to be something more than me, let him be a priest . . . I won’t have to pay for him to go to seminary.” His stinginess and envy of his own son controlled Andrei’s thoughts, and so his son didn’t live any easier than his father.
The new distress for the mother was to send her son to high school against the will of his father and to hide the costs. Although it was difficult, she gladly saved everything she could, for Vasilko was a very good student and not only played on all the sports teams but also was the team captain.
After he graduated from high school, Vasilko wanted to go on to study in a university, but his father started to sing the same old stingy song. “You can become a priest, there isn’t any money for anything else!”
“Dad, you want me to become a Rusyn priest, so that the parishioners can order me around and then avoid me, like you do with your own priest? Never! I’m not a child, you won’t threaten me anymore. . . I want to study, and I won’t let you get in my way!”
The father, infuriated, jumped towards the son and threatening to punch him with a clenched fist, said: “Is this how they taught you to treat your father in school?!”
Vasilko stood calmly, like a wall, and responded carefully: “Dad! Don’t hit me or . . . there will be a scandal!”
“Get out of my house! Get out, get out! You’re not my son anymore! And if I ever lay eyes on you again, I’ll shoot you, even if they’ll hang me!”
“Okay, Dad, but you’ll be sorry!” said Vasilko and opened the doors. While leaving the room, he turned around and said: “Be well, let God watch over you.” Then he shut the doors behind him, and went into his bedroom to pack his things. The daughters told their mother that their father kicked Vasilko out of the house and that he was getting ready to leave.
This wasn’t the first fight between the father and the son about school, and the mother usually didn’t get between them, she only begged the son to persevere and in this way she looked after him. But now she flew from the store to the son’s bedroom. “Child, don’t bring me shame! The whole town will laugh at us!” “No, mother! Everyone in town already knows what happens in this house. Father threw me out. I can’t stay here any longer. Don’t worry! You won’t be ashamed of me, mother, and when I will be my own man, I’ll come home, but no sooner.”
The mother understood that her son was right and begrudgingly ran to her husband. “So you’ve thrown our son out of the house? Do you care about your children? Is this what you’ve done to this house? Do you give me your paycheck like other husbands? You only work for yourself, put all of your money in the bank, and pay me like some kind of boarder! I keep this from the children so they wouldn’t hate you, their father! I’ve never complained to anybody so you wouldn’t be shamed. And now you threw my son, like you say, out of ‘your house’, and only because he wants to study and become a man? When will you come to your senses? What kind of father are you? What kind of husband?”
Andrei didn’t say a word since he was himself confused about what he was thinking and how he was feeling. She kept on lambasting him, but he only said, “I’m the father,” and retreated into his reticence.
At the same time Vasilko packed his suitcases and went downstairs to leave. His sisters met him on the steps and with tears in their eyes said: “Where are you going, Charlie?” “Dad threw me out of the house because I want to keep on studying. But don’t tell this to anybody because it will bring shame to them. Only say that I went to a relative’s place.” They weren’t able to stop him. The mother and the sisters cried and said goodbye. The father only looked through the window at the departing (but not prodigal)*, rashly exiled son.
After the departure of his son, Mr. Bukovage somehow suddenly changed. He no longer lost his temper; not only did he hand over his paychecks to his wife but gave her the bank book, which was taken out under both of their names. She even didn’t want to accept it. “Just let everything be the way it was,” she said to her husband. “You are the keeper of the house, not me,” he said with his appearance and his words, which compelled her to warm to the idea.
Even the church board saw the change in him! Recently, as a member of the church board, he behaved calmly at meetings, didn’t get angry with the priest or the cantor like he used to and even began to defend them, to the great amazement of all of his patriot friends.
The last week of December came, which meant that it was time for the yearly parish meeting. The parishioners filed in, and the “civil president” opens and leads the meeting without the parson, who didn’t have a vote even though he was their “spiritual father.” After a report that “the secretary still didn’t receive the checks back from the bank, so he couldn’t close the books and the controllers weren’t able to control the affairs of the church,” they put off correcting the accounts “for the future,” and moved to the election of the new officers. At the request of the “Beat the Priest!” party, everyone from that party remained in power. For cover, they elected two of the most mild-mannered parishioners, but it was decided that in the future they would again start to treat the priest even more severely!
But then Andrei Bukovage stood up. Everyone waited for another attack on the priest and cantor. Instead, he began respectfully and said in a strong voice: “Brothers, stop! Zastanovtesja!* It seems to me that we can’t run things like this anymore because other ethnic groups have already started to make fun of us. Up until now, we have treated our spiritual father like with a swineherd. I’m not ashamed to say to myself that I was in the wrong. If our priest saves our souls, he should be first in the church and not last! I propose that we call upon our spiritual father to be the parish president!”
“But, godfather Andrei, how can we do this …,” responded the president.
“Sit down!” yelled Andrei. “I’m not your godfather, but a parishioner who wants to lead to the right path those who have lost their way. Is it just, wise, or honorable that we, as uneducated people, treat the the only educated person we know, the priest, terribly, when he only wants the best for us and our children?! Who will come with me to call the priest into the meeting?!” Everyone raised their hands, even the leader of the “Beat the Priest” party. “Go godfather! But I’m warning you. If anybody lets one nasty word slip out of their mouths, I’ll knock their teeth out. Go!”
He spoke so loudly that in the rectory the priest’s wife heard a cry and flew to her husband. “Listen how terribly Bukovage is yelling at the meeting!” she said: “He’s looking to cause problems for us again. My God, how unhappy our lives are, how helpless we are again this evil group of people.” Then she started to cry.
The delegation was already knocking on the doors. The priest calmly let in the two biggest torments.
“Father, the people are waiting for us at the meeting. Please come with us,” said Bukovage.
“I would rather leave the parish than be forced to hear new insults. Please give my resignation to the faithful. Go with God!” he responded.
“Father, I understand you! But our intentions are different than you think. We not only won’t insult you anymore, but we’re asking your forgiveness for our former insults against you and the previous priests, and with your help and leadership, we want to restore order to the parish. Give us your hand and let’s shake on our new and honorable work together!”
The priest agreed. And order returned for the benefit and happiness of everyone, the old and the young. Everyone liked the change, and because of this, Andrei’s honor grew among the people. The person who was relieved by this the most was Mrs. Bukovage, and the Christmas holiday would have been entirely happy if it wasn’t for Vasilko’s empty seat at the table. But nobody said a word about this to their father because they didn’t want to arouse him, and he also didn’t mention Vasilko, though it was easy to see his internal fight taking place.
So four Christmases passed like this. Vasilko waited to be called home, and the fact that the son wouldn’t give in to him ate at the father. He didn’t write to his mother so as not to open up old wounds and only sent news to his older sister every now and then. The whole time he tried to keep his self-control.
The daughter of the superintendent of the town’s mine, Mrs. Becker, studied at the same university, and when she was on break, she said a lot of good things about Vasilko to his sisters.
The fifth Christmas Eve approached, which should have been a happy occasion, but for the Bukovage family it was a time of unease. The mother again cried a lot; the girls comforted her. But suddenly they heard a car pull up to their house. The daughters ran to the windows and said, “Mom, Mr. Becker’s car out front.” The mother went to the window and saw that a young, tall man stepped out of the car; he said goodbye to the other people who were sitting in the car; the driver placed a large suitcase near the entrance, the car drove away, and the young passenger looked up into the windows, took off his hat, and waved goodbye. But they didn’t recognize him. Who is it?! Maybe it’s our Vasilko? That strange person there. The girls even forgot to breathe, and the mother’s legs shook so much that she had to lean on her daughter so as not to fall. The doorbell rang. “He is coming to our place. Annie, go and open the door. I can’t because mom might pass out,” Helen said to her sister.
Anna rushed down, opened the door, and asked the man, in English, “Please, who are you looking for?! What can I do for you?!”*
The young man looked at her with wide eyes, smiled at the sound of her voice, and said: “Annie, don’t you recognize your own brother?” And Annie ran halfway up the staircase and yelled: “Mom, Helen! Our Vasilko is here!” She then quickly ran back to her brother, threw her arms around his neck, kissed him, laughed, cried, and shrieked. “Oh brother!”
Vasilko took his sister in his arms like a small child, and carried her upstairs to her mother, who was standing in the doors of the living room. I won’t dare to describe all of their happiness. You can’t read about it or see it, you only can experience it – tenderly, happily, truly.
They went into the room. Vasilko looked around, stared at the Christmas tree, and noticed the table set for five. He understood. Once again he kissed the hand of his mother, held it close to himself, and said: “Luckily I forgot that today was Rusyn Christmas Eve. Mom! Christos raždajetsja – Christ is born!”*
The father was standing in the side doors, with a shaky voice answered – “Slavite Jeho – Glorify Him!” – walked towards his son with outstretched arms, held him close, and said: “Welcome son! These past years not only have you went to school and studied, but I have learned to value education and respect the educated, my spiritual father first among them! And I have taught others to do the same.”
Vasilko, even though he was highly educated, was not ashamed to kiss the hand of his father, one darkened by the mines, and said: “If this is true, then I would have followed your advice and become a priest, but . . .,” and then quickly added, “Mom, Dad, would I be allowed to bring home my fiancée, Miss Kathleen Becker, and with her the ‘fire boss,’ my friend, Mr. Theodore Cherney tomorrow?” As he said this, he looked at his sister Helen and smiled because she became red up to her ears at the mention of the name of her sweetheart, who everyone, including her parents, already knew about.
“Of course! We would happily welcome both of them,” everyone said.
And so they sat down to Christmas Eve dinner, and it was truly a holy and happy one for all. After dinner, they entertained each other with stories and adventures of the past years until the bells started to ring during the midnight service and everyone proclaimed: “Christos Raždajetsja! Christ is Born! Merry Christmas!”
Translated by Nick Kupensky.