Christmas Eve at the Bear Sanctuary

For Catholic Christmas eve, we went to see Saint Nicholas at the bear sanctuary near Lviv. It was a beautiful evening, with snow falling gently the whole time.

I believe Saint Nicholas was a priest. He was a remarkable listener, and his conversation with my son was fascinating. He advised him to avoid fries and candy and to eat potatoes and borshch and salo (a Ukrainian lard dish), and other good Galician Ukrainian food. Though at the end of it, he gave a bag of candies as a gift.

My son answered a question about our Christmas decorations – that they’re mostly on the stairs that go up to the room where his dad (me) works. When Saint Nicholas asked for more detail, Danny struggled with an explanation a bit, and then waved his had dismissively and said “you’ll see when you visit”.

My son told him in great detail how he doesn’t go to nursery school because they made him put on a costume there, and he didn’t like that, and after that his mother allowed him to stop going. I didn’t think my son remembered that in such detail.

He also explained to Saint Nicholas that after people die they go to live with God for a while, but he thinks they then come back to live another life. He’s asked about dying since we visited a historic cemetery where a relative of mine was doing restoration work on historic grave monuments and chapels, and perhaps also since reading Charlotte’s Web.

Saint Nicholas told him he always brings gifts, and that people sometimes talk about him bringing switches to bad children, but that that has yet to happen.

After a long and engaging conversation, my son looked at me and said, “I’m bored.” As we left, there was a single family waiting to enter the cabin. Their child saw Saint Nicholas and let out a scream.

Later we saw the man who’d dressed as Saint Nicholas in the cafe, and he told me that I have a great son, that angels are speaking through him, and that it’s encouraging for him to know such people exist.

We gifted a shopping bag full of fruit and a crate of eggs to the sanctuary. We went on a tour of the sanctuary that included their kitchen and veterinary room. They have 29 bears, and capacity for 30. These are bears who’ve been kept in captivity and are unfit for release in the wild. They sterilize them, because even their children who would be without examples of surviving in the wild, would be unfit for release. Apparently there are about 250 wild bears in Ukraine, and the same number in captivity.

The sanctuary has an ingenious system of gates between the different plots of land, and tunnels, so that any bear can be led to any part of the sanctuary with no need for tranquilizers and transport.

The tour took us right to the door of a cage where two bears were lying in hay and not quite sleeping – they lifted their heads to look at us, just a meter or so away. Some bears apparently prefer to sleep in these little rooms rather than outside. They let them decide.

In other part of the sanctuary there were four playful cubs. Apparently the three new arrivals had only just accepted the other cub who’d been there longer and started socializing with him. They were as lively as our guide as ever seen them. They converged on a snowball our guide threw over the fence. He gave a snowball for my son to throw as well, explaining that they’re so excited about it because they think it’s food. About ten minutes later, my son asked if he could have an apple to throw over of the fence so that the bears wouldn’t be mad at him for tricking them. Bless his heart. The guide explained that they weren’t upset, and in fact they probably enjoyed the game.