Russian Orthodox Christmas Tradition

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Thirteen days after Western Christmas, on January 7th, the Russian Orthodox Church celebrates its Christmas, in accordance with the old Julian calendar. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, January 7th has become an official national holiday. This is the date of the Russian Orthodox Christmas – Nativity of Christ.

In the Roman Catholic and Anglican Churches January 6th is acknowledged as the Epiphany – the time when the Christ Child was visited by the Magi from the East, or Three Wise Men.

The Russian Orthodox Church follows the Julian or Old Calendar. Thus, the Orthodox Church Feasts and Holidays of January are:
Nativity of Our Lord (Christmas) – January 7th
New Year’s Day (The Old New Year) – January 14th
Theophany (Christ’s Baptism) – January 20th.

In the Orthodox tradition Christmas Eve is a quiet and pious event, finalizing the forty-day Christmas fast. The Christmas fast culminates on Christmas Eve of January 6th, when the believers don’t eat or drink anything at all until the first star appears in the night sky. In the days of old, children usually informed their parents about the first star as they ran back home from their outdoor games of skating, snowballing and tobogganing.

The first star to appear in the sky simbolizes the great star that led the Magi to the newly born Christ. Once the first star has appeared in the sky, the festivities begin with a Lenten meal – meat or dairy products (chocolate as well) are excluded. This Christmas Eve meal is “the Holy Supper” .

A family gathers around a dinner table to honor the coming Christ Child. Families usually invited a lonely neighbor or a poor passerby to share their Christmas Eve meal with: you never knew – the homeless beggar could be the Lord himself. The tradition demanded to only speak of good things and discuss good deeds at the Christmas Eve table. A white tablecloth is used to symbolize Christ’s swaddling clothes and hay is displayed as a reminder of the poverty of the place where Jesus was born. A tall white candle is placed in the center of the Table, to symbolize Christ – the “Light of the World.” A large round loaf of “pagach”, a special Lenten bread, is placed beside the candle to symbolize Christ – the “Bread of Life”.

The father of the family begins the Christmas meal by leading the family in the Lord’s Prayer, a prayer of thanksgiving for the blessings of the past year and for the good things to come in the new year. The head of the family greets those present with “Christ is Born!” – atraditional Russian Christmas greeting – and the family responds with “Glorify Him!” The Mother then draws a cross with honey on each person’s forehead, saying a blessing – “In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, may you have sweetness and many good things in life and in the new year.” The Lenten bread (pagach) is then broken and shared. The bread is dipped first in honey to symbolize the sweetness of life and then in chopped garlic to symbolize life’s bitterness. The “Holy Supper” is then eaten. After dinner, no dishes are washed and the Christmas presents are opened. The family goes to church for the Christmas Mass which lasts until after midnight.

Although most believers make sure the Christmas Eve table contains twelve dishes in the memory of the twelve Apostles, although there was also some variation in the foods from place to place and village to village, the following is a good summary of what is typically served.

1) Mushroom soup with zaprashka (or Sauerkraut soup)
2) Lenten bread (“pagach”)
3) Chopped garlic
4) Honey
5) Baked fish
6) Fresh oranges, figs and dates
7) Nuts
8) Kidney beans (cooked slowly all day) seasoned with shredded potatoes, lots of garlic, salt and pepper to taste
9) Peas
10) Parsley potatoes (boiled new potatoes with chopped parsley and margarine)
11) Bobal’ki (small biscuits combined with sauerkraut or poppy seed with honey)
12) Red wine

On Christmas morning the family returns to church for the Christmas day Liturgy. After returning from a church the family gathers together to exchange gifts and share a special Christmas meal. Children go from door to door caroling the song “Thy Nativity”.

“C Rodzhestvom Kristovom”(srod-zshest-vum krist-o-vum) is a common Russian Christmas greeting, meaning “With the Birth of Christ!”

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