Armenian, Russian and Greek Christmas traditions

Why Armenians celebrate Christmas on January 6 >

The exact date of Jesus’ birth has not been recorded in the Gospels and is not historically known. Despite this mystery date, Christian churches before the fourth century celebrated Jesus’ birthday on January 6.

According to Associate Director of the Eurasia Research Programme at the University of Cambridge Hratch Tchilingirian, Roman Catholic sources hold that the date was changed in the fourth century to December 25 to override a pagan feast dedicated to the birth of the Sun, which was celebrated on December 25.

To undermine this pagan practice, the Church hierarchy designated December 25 as the official date of Christmas and January 6 as the feast of Epiphany.

“However, Armenia was not affected by this change for the simple fact that there were no such pagan practices in Armenia on that date, and the fact that the Armenian Church was not a satellite of the Roman Church,” Tchilingirian writes. “Remaining faithful to their Church traditions, Armenians continue to celebrate Christmas on January 6th until today.”

The ‘arch-heresy of ecumenism’ >

While Armenians may celebrate Christmas on January 6, Russian Orthodox and other Old Calendarists celebrate it on January 7. Or rather, they celebrate it on January 7 by the Julian calendar, which translates to December 25 on the Gregorian calendar.

In the mid 16th century, the Roman Catholic Council of Trent adopted the Gregorian calendar, which most of the world presently uses.

The Eastern Orthodox Church used the Julian calendar all the way up through the early 20th century, after which some of its members, including Greece and Cyprus, moved to a revised version of the old calendar, known as the Revised Julian calendar. The Russian Orthodox Church, the largest Orthodox jurisdiction, as well as a number of other Orthodox jurisdictions, including the Ecumenical Patriarchate and Mount Athos, did not adopt the Revised Julian calendar. Along with the majority of Orthodox Christians worldwide, these jurisdictions still use the Julian calendar for religious observation, although all the the countries where Orthodox Christians live have adopted the Gregorian calendar for secular purposes.

In Greece and Cyprus, Old Calendarists maintain that they have not branched off from the mainstream Church not only over a mere calendar. The calendar, in their view, is merely a symptom of what they refer to as the “arch-heresy of ecunemism”.

The Nativity of Christ celebrated on Sunday

While the memories of Western Christmas are fading away, millions of Eastern Orthodox Christians will celebrate their Christmas Sunday, which they prefer to call the Nativity of Christ.

Some of the Eastern Orthodox Christians celebrate the Nativity of Christ according to the Julian calendar. At one time, all Christians followed the Julian calendar. But the mean year in the Julian calendar was slightly too long, causing the vernal equinox to slowly drift backward in the calendar year.

So in 1582, Pope Gregory VIII decreed that the Gregorian Calendar, which dropped days to bring the seasons back into synchronization, would be used.

Eastern Orthodox Christians continued to celebrate the Nativity of Christ according to the Julian calendar, making December 25 fall on January 7 by Gregorian calendar calculations.

In 1925, some Orthodox churches adopted the Gregorian calendar. The Patriarchate of Jerusalem, Mount Athos in Greece (which is an autonomy, falling under the Ecumenical Patriarchate and not the Church of Greece authority) Russian and Serbian Orthodox churches stuck to the Julian calendar.

The Eastern Orthodox Nativity of Christ is not greeted with festively illuminated streets and homes. We expect the light of Christ to illuminate us and, through intensified prayers and fasting, we try to prepare ourselves spiritually.

There is no exchange of seasonal gifts. Orthodox Christians celebrate receiving the most precious gift, the Nativity of Christ. In all the hustling about regarding gifts and meals, one tends to forget the One we are celebrating.

Orthodox Christians greet one another on that day and the two following days not with “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays,” but with “Christ is Born. Indeed He is born.”

We also remember the meaning of Christmas by spreading straw on the floor of our dining rooms to signify that the Lord Jesus Christ, the King of Kings, was born in a cave and laid in a manger. Many Orthodox Christians eat Christmas Eve supper not at the table, but sitting on the floor.

Whether Christians celebrate on December 25 according to the Gregorian or January 7 according to the Julian calendar, we all celebrate the Nativity of  Jesus Christ.

It’s Christmas for Eastern Orthodox

While many are taking down Christmas decorations and getting ready for the next holiday, some of the Eastern Orthodox Christmas begins Sunday.

After 40 days of fasting, Serbian and Russian Orthodox in Northern Nevada begin eight days of feasting and celebration. The Eastern Orthodox Church celebrates the nativity birth of Jesus Christ almost two weeks after December 25, because it follows the Julian calendar.

The holiday is filled with traditions and customs. Some are part of the area’s practices. Fasting is an important preparation for the holy day and people refrain from animal products.

“Eat, drink and be merry is not part of the preparation,” said Nona Katzenstein, church warden for Holy Royal Martyrs of Russian Orthodox Church. “We will break the fast Sunday at lunch.”

There is not a lot of gift giving, instead the preparation for Orthodox Christmas is to “focus on our soul, spiritual needs and to focus on the feast that we’re celebrating,” said the Rev. James Barfield, rector for St. John the Baptist Serbian Orthodox Mission Parish. Because members of the church mostly are Americans, Barfield said not many of the passed down traditions are practiced. “Come to church, and we’ll be more ethnic,” he said. “I’m always game for that.”

Christmas Eve, Badnje Vece in Serbian, is the beginning of the celebration. According to tradition, the father and oldest son go to the nearest forest on the morning of Christmas Eve and cut the Badnjak tree. It is burned for prosperity. “Some Serbian churches, they have a bonfire,” Barfield said. “It’s a crossover tradition from the Serbian people. It parallels the Christmas tree really.”

While some Eastern Orthodox members eat a 12-course dinner representing each month of the year, Serbians traditionally eat baked beans or prebranac, fried fish and then dried fruits.

“It is a very beautiful tradition,” Barfield said. “If we had a bigger dining hall, I would probably do that.” Barfield said they will greet each other on Christmas Day with “Christ is born.” And the response is “Glorify Him.”

A very Holy time

It’s Christmas today for Orthodox Christians and Eastern Rite Catholics who follow the Julian calendar for religious events.

About 6,000 Londoners in Canada, celebrated Christmas Eve last night on a day when many city residents took down coloured lights and disposed of dried out fir trees.

It’s Christmas today for Orthodox Christians and Eastern Rite Catholics who follow the Julian calendar for religious events instead of the Gregorian dates familiar to most Canadians.

“This is a very holy time and the most important family occasion of the year for parishioners who follow their traditions,” said Rev. Zen Didukh of the Ukrainian Catholic Church of Christ the King on Nelson Street.

Last night, a few blocks from the church, most homes no longer displayed the signs of Christmas. But white, green and red lights still shone brightly on two trees on the front lawn of the Hryckiw family. Inside, the Hryckiw family was preparing to sit down to a meal prepared in a manner learned from their mothers and grandmothers.

In a Ukrainian household, 12 dishes are served on Christmas Eve, all meatless and none containing dairy products. And today they will eat meat, turkey, chicken and pork. The 12 dishes, symbolic of Christ’s 12 Apostles, include a braided bread called kolach, wheat cooked with honey, poppy seeds and chopped nuts, borshch (beet soup) with perogies, fish, cabbage rolls, beans and fruit.

The Christmas Eve feast signifies the end of a period of fasting, said the priest. “Some people fast for five or six weeks. They don’t eat meat or dairy foods for three days a week during that time. It’s a period of fasting, prayer and performing charitable works.”

After dinner last night, they planned to attend mass to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ and other gifts from God. As for Earthly gifts, exchanged by family members and friends, the tradition varies from family to family living in London, Canada.

Some families will exchange gifts (today), but many won’t. That’s because most Ukrainians give gifts, especially to children, on the feast of St. Nicholas in early December. It’s a misconception that Ukrainians take advantage of Boxing Day sales to acquire gifts for their Christmas. Most of them have already exchanged gifts by then. When their Christmas comes, they place the emphasis on God and family.

Carolling is a must on Christmas also. They sing carols at home, in church and at the homes of their friends.

Merry Christmas > Ukrainians celebrate

Culture, costumes and ethnic cuisine, it’s all part of today’s colourful Ukrainian Christmas celebration.

For thousands of Winnipeg residents of Ukrainian descent following the Julian calendar, January 7 brings an occasion to mark the birth of Christ more than a week after most of us have put away our yuletide decorations. It’s a spiritual day, largely without gifts and more about meaningful family gatherings.

With a 12-course meal and traditional old-country clothing, Daria Zmiyiwsky and family spared no effort last night to celebrate Ukrainian Christmas Eve.

“It’s such an incredible night and so rich with tradition,” Zmiyiwsky said before gathering with her family and friends, about 30 in all, at a relative’s home. “Everybody comes dressed in Ukrainian costumes. We have a lot of ceremonies we go through.”

Before digging into a feast of a dozen meatless dishes as part of Ukrainian custom, the Christmas Eve ceremonies include a skyward gaze, led by children, to find the “first star”, a sign the traditional meal can begin.

“They’re following the star, that’s the correlation,” Zmiyiwsky said. “We look for the star, and the star is the resemblance of the birth of Jesus Christ.”

Traditional carols such as Boh Predvichnyj, Ukrainian for “God eternal,” may precede the meal, which is led off by one of the elder male family members carrying a sheaf of wheat, or “didukh”, three times around the house before laying it in a corner. That’s what Zmiyiwsky describes as a “representation of the people who have died” in the family, to honour them during the feast.

“It’s symbolic of our ancestors and it represents food, the wheat crops,” said Evhan Uzwyshyn, who carried the sheath and its “grandfather spirit” for his family while wearing a traditional embroidered shirt.

The meal might take 90 minutes to eat, and for good reason. The dozen courses include boiled jellied fish, kapusta soup and pickled herring and are led by kutya, a mix of poppy seeds, wheat and honey.

Keeping this celebration together is a growing concern as the adults grow older, hoping their kids won’t lose the Ukrainian Christmas Spirit as years go by.

“What about our ancestors? What about the people who taught us these traditions? We can’t forget them. We have to make sure our children know about these people and how hard they worked,” Zmiyiwsky said.

Celebrate an Orthodox Christmas > Ukrainian traditions

Traditions, for some, are sacred and are recognized no matter the changing seasons or changes within society itself.

Facing a great deal of change has been challenging for the parishioners of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of St. Mary the Protectress in Port Alberni. However, a move to a new chapel in Parksville hasn’t quelled their enthusiasm for their traditional Ukrainian Christmas.

Some Orthodox religions throughout the world celebrate the birth of Christ as it is marked on the Julian calendar, meaning Christmas for them falls on January 6 and 7, that is 13 days after the event on the Gregorian calendar, on December 25. For the members of the St. Mary the Protectress church, it is a time with a specific purpose.

“It’s at this time that Orthodox Ukrainians celebrate the nativity of Jesus Christ,” says Father Michael Sokyrka, a retired priest who presided in Port Alberni for 13 years. “There is no Santa Claus, but we have a St. Nicholas Day in December. It ties in, but that is a separate thing.”

Traditions, he continues, vary in each country that follows the Orthodox religion, Ukraine, Greece, Serbia. Sokyrka notes there are some consistencies in how they celebrate Christmas.

The head of the family at sunset on Christmas Eve on January 6, goes outside to gather a bundle of hay, which is put under the dinner table to signify the manger. On top of the table, a place is set for every person in the house.

More Christmas Traditions from around the world

Christmas in USA > The United States of America integrates different elements from different countries in its Christmas Celebrations. A multicultural celebration! The Christmas Tree tradition comes from Germany, Parades from Latin America, Carols from the English and Australians, Santa Claus from the Europeans and more.

Apart from the general celebration with feasting, caroling, decorating and gift-giving, each family in the US has their individual Christmas celebrations. And even the traditions vary from one place to another within the US. In Washington DC for instance, there’s this central celebration with lighting of the Christmas Tree on the Ellipse. Here you’ll find one big tree which represents the American nation and other smaller trees representing other states. In New Orleans, caroling is the focus of Christmas, thousands throng the Jackson Square each year on Christmas to have a huge group-community caroling around big bonfires lit along the river Mississippi. The oldest city in the US, St. Augustine, Florida, has the whole of the city lit up in white lights on Christmas. No lights except white are allowed on Christmas. Then again, many Americans love to hit Hollywood, California to treat their eyes to the annual Parade of Stars, while others entertain themselves at Christmas concerts or caroling festivities in and around the cities.

Christmas in France > Joyeux Noël. For all the curious, that’s Merry Christmas in French. In France, Christmas is called Noël and Father Christmas is known as Père Noël. Christmas Trees are decorated with red ribbons and candles. Fir trees are also lighted on Christmas. People gather together and feast on meat and fine wine. The French kids put shoes and boots by the hearth for Santa to keep Christmas goodies in them. And nearly every family sets up a Nativity scene at home on Christmas.

Christmas in Spain > Feliz Navidad. Now that’s Merry Christmas for the Spanish speaking population. Spanish Christmas is essentially religious in spirit and celebration. Virgin Mary is the country’s patron saint and hence, Spain observes a pious Christmas festivity. Here, Christmas officially begins from December 8, the day of the feast of the Immaculate Conception. Each year, the Spanish celebrate Christmas in front of Seville’s Gothic Cathedral with a ceremony known as Los Seises or the Dance of Six.

Christmas in Portugal > Portuguese Christmas is much the same as Christmas in Spain. Whatever gifts Father Christmas brings to the kids, are kept at the base of the Christmas evergreen or in shoes by the fireplace. At midnight on Christmas Eve, the Portuguese have a special Christmas meal of dry and salted cod-fish and boiled potatoes. And in the early morning of the Christmas day, they have a meal called Consoada, where seats are left empty at the table for the alminhas a penar or the souls of the dead. This comes from the ancient practice of leaving seeds to the dead ancestors in hopes of getting rewarded with a more bountiful harvest. So boas festas! Have a great party this Christmas and New Year!

Christmas in England > England holds claim to the origin of hanging stockings on Christmas. It’s believed that Father Christmas once dropped some gold coins while coming down a chimney and the coins landed on one stocking hanging out to dry. Since then, the idea of hanging stockings on Christmas held ground and children today, make it a point to hang their stockings for Santa Claus to fill these up with Christmas goodies. In some parts, pantomime is also a popular Christmas tradition. And the wishing of Merry Christmas and gift-giving is of course there in England.

Christmas in Germany > In Germany, the St. Nicholas Day celebration of December 6 is similar to the Christmas celebrations of the English. Apart from wishing each other a Froehliche Weihnachten or Merry Christmas, the Christmas customs and traditions vary from one region to another in Germany. The St. Nicholas Day is primarily a day reserved for the young ones to have fun and get pampered in gifts. After this, the actual Christmas gift-giving kicks off at the Christmas Eve night. Gifts are usually kept under the Christmas Tree and people enjoy a traditional roast goose in their Christmas meal. The Weihnachtsmann, a look-alike of St. Nicholas, brings gifts on Christmas and sometimes these are brought by the Christkind, a fairy child often like baby Jesus.

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