‘Yalinka’ tree is important symbol for Prince Albert woman

Michael Oleksyn/Daily Herald Angie Hesje poses with her Yalinka (Christmas Tree) on Jan. 2.

To Prince Albert’s Angie Hesje, the war in Ukraine has made her Ukrainian roots—and Ukrainian Christmas—even more important.

This year, her tree has become a symbol of her love for Ukraine. She called the tree Yalinka, and decorated it with symbols of Ukraine including vinoks, mitonka dolls and Ukraine-themed wreathes.

What the tree is about really is the connection to our roots,” Hesje explained. “However we celebrate in your own ways, there is that connection.

“Last year we didn’t talk about Ukraine, this year we are talking about Ukraine and what I found really interesting this year is how many of my friends and acquaintances have asked me why is Russia invading Ukraine.”

Hesje is one of many Prince Albert residents with family over in Ukraine. Her cousin just returned to the country on New Year’s Day to help with non-military aid.

“There are many Canadians who are not soldiers,” Hesje said. “My cousin is 70 years of age he is going to help in any way he can and there are many Canadians that are raising money. They are going over. They are supporting the Ukrainians that are coming here. In Prince Albert, we have lots of people that are supporting the Ukrainians.”

She said that the symbolism was much different because the world knows more about Ukraine now than they did a year ago. Hesje is retired, but teaches English as Second Language over Zoom to groups of people in Ukraine.

“Then, of course, the war broke out in February and my cousin in Hamilton, Ontario, he was going to Ukraine,” Hesje said. “He was needing to raise money. They were going to buy half ton trucks, so I wasn’t sure how or what way I could help.”
She then decided to make a wreath for the front door with blue and yellow flowers to represent the flag of Ukraine. Soon after, her daughter asked if she could make one, then another person and another person. Hesje never charged money for her efforts, but instead asked recipients to make a donation.

“People kept asking me and so I spent the whole summer making Ukrainian themed wreaths,” Hesje remembered. “I didn’t sell any, but when people asked me I would do them.

“I would just tell them what it represented to me and if they wanted to make a donation that was fine. I was just sending it on to Ukraine, so that’s what I did.”

Hesje is also in a Ukrainian Book Club based at Thompson Rivers studying the country and the language. One of her fellow book club members decided to make a vinok, or traditional head dress. Vinoks are now traditionally worn by Ukrainian dancers, but were originally made by unmarried girls in the spring as a symbol that they were young and unmarried. Married women would not wear them.

Hesje watched a YouTube video and decided to make some for her granddaughters. However, as with the wreaths for her front door, her efforts soon expanded.

“People I was connecting with in Ukraine, some of them were starting to get Visas to come to Canada,” she said. “One lady from Odessa was coming to North Battleford and she had two teenage daughters so I decided I would make a wreath and a vinok for them, welcoming them to Canada and they came in July.”

She also made another wreath for Ukrainians who came to Saskatoon.

“It was also a way for me to welcome these people I had made connections with over Zoom,” she said.

She had a bunch of vinoks and wreaths lying around and when it came time to decorate for Christmas, her husband Morris suggested that they put them on the tree.

“My husband said, ‘instead of the birds on top of the tree why don’t we put one of your vinoks on top?’ I said ‘oh what a good idea’,” she remembered.

The vinok was the first decoration and others soon followed. Hesje added poppies and sunflowers to the bottom of the tree as a kind of skirt or statement.

With the vinok on top of the tree he started adding other vinoks and wreaths.

“(It’s) like an exclamation mark, is what I was thinking,” she said. “The poppies represent the blood of the people.”

Hesje said Ukrainians love flowers, especially sunflowers and poppies. Sunflower oil is their favourite oil. Ukraine is the world’s biggest exporter of sunflower oil and exports 45-55 per cent of the global supply of sunflower oil. Poppy seeds are used in baking and the traditional Christmas eve (Sviaty Vecher) dish called kutya. It is made with boiled wheat, ground poppy seeds and honey sweetened warm water.

“Then my husband, he has a beautiful Christmas train and he puts it under and this year we added the Ukrainian flag to it,” she said.

In October, she was visiting family in Calgary and met some people who were making Matonka Dolls.

The Matonka Doll is uniquely an indigenous Ukrainian pagan tradition, a talisman, and traces of it have been found in archaeological digs, dating back 5,000 years.

It represents the unity of the family and deep connection between multiple generations.

The name “motanka” comes from the word “motaty” (to wind), to make a knotted doll out of fabric, without using a needle and scissors, as the creation of the doll may not be pierced by a needle. The fabric is ripped rather than cut with scissors. The fabric usually comes from pieces of fabric from old clothes.

Everything on the tree is handmade by Hesje, with the exception of the flowers. She said the decision to turn her Christmas tree into Yalinka just happened naturally.

“It isn’t like I planned all since the war that we will have to have a Ukrainian themed Christmas tree,” she explained. “All of those little pieces just came together and this was the year to do it, to remember our families, whether we know them or not, in Ukraine, (and) to remember those who are fighting for freedom.

“I am very proud of Ukraine and how they are standing up for democracy and they are giving their lives. It’s so easy to just walk away and allow your enemies to walk all over you but this time the Ukrainians are not allowing that to happen. They are fighting and they are not just fighting for their country but they are fighting for you and I.”

She explained that one thing that Vladimir Putin did not count on was the strength of the Ukrainian diaspora around the world.

“I have connected with Ukrainians in the diaspora that had been like our family in whether it is Brazil or Australia, the US or wherever,” she said. “We still have that deep connection with our roots and millions and millions of dollars are raised by the diaspora. I’m first generation on one side and second generation on the other side.

“Russia is not just fighting Ukraine, they are fighting all of us and I don’t think that was thought through. I’m not sure how many other countries or cultures could count on their diaspora to this extent,” she said.

With Ukrainian Christmas coming up on Jan. 6 and she explained that the symbolism of that this year is not lost on her either.
“It has really shown the strength of the Ukrainian people and the strength of our culture that we are so pulled to share. You don’t have to have 12 dishes on January 6 to be a Ukrainian, or Ukrainian ancestry.