Spotlight: Celebrating Ukrainian culture
A Ukrainian flag waves in the air.
Dancers from the Kalyna Performing Arts Company, based in Canada, perform for the crowd gathered at the Ukrainian Homestead in Lehighton last Saturday. DANIELLE DERRICKSON/TIMES NEWS
Dancers from Kalyna Performing Arts glide across the stage.
Myron Kyj checks on the beer he brewed at this year’s Ukrainian Festival.
Hand-painted wooden birds decorate Joseph and Barbara Dereskavich’s table. DANIELLE DERRICKSON/TIMES NEWS
As Myron Kyj stirred a batch of his signature beer, the scent of his brew mixed with that of steamed cabbage and grilled sausage.
People sat scattered around picnic tables at the Ukrainian Homestead in Lehighton, speaking English, Ukrainian or a blend of both.
They had all gathered for the same reason: to celebrate Ukrainian culture during the homestead’s 27th annual Ukrainian Festival.
Kyj (pronounced “key”) and his family came to America from Ukraine in 1949, when he was just 4 years old. They traveled by boat, docking in New York. Kyj remembers getting picked up by two of his uncles.
The family moved to Pennsylvania, opening a bakery in Chester, which is still in operation today. Kyj’s father worked at the now-defunct General Steel and made machinery during the Korean War.
“We had an American family,” Kyj, 74, said.
Kyj learned how to speak English by listening to it on the street, and while he still speaks Ukrainian, he said people from Ukraine can spot his accent from a mile away.
“That’s part of the American in me,” Kyj, who now serves as president of the Central Executive Committee for the Organization for the Rebirth of Ukraine, said.
The highlight of last weekend’s celebration were its two shows, which took place on Saturday and Sunday afternoons.
Performers from the Schuylkill-based Kazka Ukrainian Folk Ensemble, who use the homestead to practice throughout the year, and the Kalyna Performing Arts Company, located in Canada, stepped seamlessly through their choreography like clocks ticking away the seconds.
There were also food vendors and merchants, who sold handcrafted wares such as necklaces, wooden carvings and ornate Ukrainian Easter eggs, called pysanky.
Two of those merchants, Joseph and Barbara Dereskavich, have been selling their wares at the festival for years. Joseph started carving when he was just 9 years old. The first thing he ever chiseled was a wooden spoon for his mother.
The table manned by the Dereskaviches boasted carefully carved wooden flowers and hand-painted wooden birds. The couple is not Ukrainian; they are Lithuanian, but said the two groups share a similar history in America.
“We’re friends with the Ukrainians,” Barbara said.
The promise of prosperity brought forth by anthracite coal found in Northeastern Pennsylvania attracted immigrants from all over Europe. As of the late 1800s, most of those who came to the United States were from Southern and Eastern European regions, like Hungary, Poland, Italy and Ukraine.
The Lehighton homestead was purchased by the Organization for the Rebirth of Ukraine in 1957. It originally spanned 450 acres, but after the organization bought the land, lots were subdivided and sold to members of the organization.
“This was like a little piece of land for them,” Ulana Prociuk, homestead administrator, said.
But over time, those properties, too, were sold off. Prociuk estimates that today, the homestead owns about 250 acres.
The two-day festival is one of the homestead’s largest fundraisers of the year, and the proceeds go toward maintaining the property.
But Paula Holoviak, who serves on the Organization for the Rebirth of Ukraine board, said the homestead is always open to the public. Events aimed at preserving Ukrainian culture are hosted there year-round.
“It’s a great asset to the community,” Holoviak said. “Our kids sing, they dance, they speak another language.”
“It just makes life more interesting, I think,” she said.