In Western Ukraine, we are Greek Catholics, and we are very religious. Every Sunday, every church in Lviv, Ternopil, Ivano-Frankivsk, and Volyn regions is packed with believers for a morning mass. Easter and Christmas are the most important days of the year, and wherever in the world you are, you have to come back to your parents’ place to share a festive meal — it is an unbreakable rule.
At the same time, we are very superstitious and follow lots of little everyday magic rituals. For example, when a child gets scared, he or she is taken to an old lady, who would roll a couple of eggs on his forehead or burn some candles in front of them, spilling the wax into a cup of water. Or, if there is a thunderstorm, people take outside a little branch of a willow tree, which is kept inside the house behind an icon on the wall. Touching wood is a must as well as not sweeping the floor while your guests are still on their way home, or taking the trash out after the sunset.
My grandma, may her soul rest in peace, deeply despised superstitions. But she constantly followed her own set of everyday magic rituals. Many of them were connected to bread. Before starting a new loaf of bread, she would always scratch a cross on it with a knife. If even the smallest piece of bread fell on the floor, she would pick it up quickly and kiss it with respect and make sure we, kids, would do the same. Needless to say, it was considered a great sin to throw away bread. Even if it was no longer good or safe to eat. Even if it was stale bread covered with blue mold. The leftovers of bread and other food were fed to the animals who lived on our little farm in the middle of a small town.
For me, my grandma represents the quintessence of Ukrainity, as I call it: a total sum of the most representative Ukrainian qualities and values, recognizable within our nation and abroad. Bottomless respect for bread is one of them. And now, when the Russians are deliberately burning our wheat fields, we remember Stalin’s artificial famine, Holodomor of 1932–1933, which took millions of lives of innocent Ukrainian people. Protecting the crops has become one of the many fronts of the current war. And even though nowadays you can go to the grocery store and buy a loaf of bread that is already cut (to save you the trouble), every time I start a new loaf, mentally I make a cross on it. Just like my grandma taught me. Because a strong intergenerational connection is another value which is part of Ukrainity.