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.

This is the Christmas that counts

Many Orthodox Christians, though not majority in U.S, hold on to January 7 as the real holiday

Today is Christmas for Viola Peifer and family, who celebrated last night with a traditional meal of bread and mushroom soup, and with straw scattered under the table as a reminder that Jesus was born among animals.

The North Side resident keeps the traditional Orthodox date of January 7 while also observing December 25 because her extended family of 97 people includes many who follow the Western calendar. But for her, it is today that counts. “On the seventh it is a command that they all come to church with me, and then we come home for Christmas food and for opening gifts,” she said of her three children, their spouses and her seven grandchildren.

No meat may be eaten Christmas Eve because of the fast, so it’s mushroom soup. They pass a cup of wine around the table and offer each other a Christmas blessing. But today there will be turkey, Orthodox Christmas, American style.

The difference in date stems from the adoption of the Gregorian Calendar, decreed by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582 to solve problems with the accuracy of the ancient Julian calendar. Orthodox Christians, who regarded popes as schismatic, did not begin to follow it until the 20th century, when the Greek and Middle Eastern Orthodox churches adopted it.

Although the majority of Orthodox worldwide celebrate Christmas today, most in the U.S. celebrated it December 25. But some are allowed to choose, including parishes in the American Carpatho-Russian Orthodox Diocese of Johnstown, to which Peifer belongs.

More than 20 years ago, St. Nicholas Orthodox Church in New Castle became one of the first in that diocese to move to December 25. It required a 95 percent vote of the congregation, because the issue could split parishes.

There were many reasons for the change, said the Rev. Richard Salley, pastor of St. Nicholas for 37 years. The most important was spiritual: Orthodox Advent, which includes December 25, is a time of strict fast, but many parishioners in mixed marriages were celebrating both dates. “They were breaking the Advent fasting season,” he said.

It was difficult for college students to spend Christmas with their families on January 7, which often meant they didn’t get to church at all, he said. The switch made it far easier for families to gather. “I think that in the near future, most of the churches will change,” he said.

Eastern Catholics, whose practices are nearly identical to the Orthodox, have mostly switched to December 25 in the U.S., said the Rev. Robert Oravetz, who is in charge of four Byzantine Catholic missions around Penn State University. The major exceptions are among Ukrainian Catholics, who have many new immigrants from Ukraine, which is still on the old calendar, he said.

He was 14 in 1955 when the Byzantine Catholic archbishop of Pittsburgh insisted on December 25. The push for the Western date among Eastern Catholics began after World War II, when men returned from overseas full of fervor for all things American. “They wanted two things in the churches: services in English and the so-called American calendar,” Father Oravetz said.

Language was easier to change, because understanding of Old Slavonic had declined and parishes could always hold a second service in that language, he said. But there was deep resistance to changing the calendar, which many felt was what made them distinct from “the Romans.” “When a congregation adopted the new calendar, I remember the accusations whispered that this is another parish that is going Roman,” he said.

But today, he said, the calendar is a non-issue among most Eastern Catholics. He believes the move to December 25 is good for Christian unity and would like to see Catholics adopt the Orthodox date for Easter, an idea that the late Pope John Paul II had favored.  “When you are celebrating on different dates, it allows non-Christians to be able to raise questions” about division, he said.

But the pastor at St. John the Baptist Orthodox Church in Marshall-Shadeland said his parishioners prefer the traditional date for spiritual reasons. Because all the commercial hoopla is past, the later date keeps the focus on Jesus’ birth.

“In the Orthodox church, Christmas is celebrated spiritually. You go to church, receive the sacraments and celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. Even though people go to church on December 25, that celebration has become more secularized,” said the Rev. John Brancho.

A few people in his parish have expressed interest in changing because it is hard to get off work on January 7, he said. He writes notes for children to show their school that they are taking a day off for a religious observance. But there is little generational difference over the preferred date, he said. “Some of the younger people want to keep the traditions of their family. I think it is part of the connection of the present with the past,” he said.

The greatest challenges come from mixed families, which is virtually all of them. Peifer counts many Eastern and Latin Catholics among her 97 relatives. They have found ways to accommodate everyone with regard to gift-giving. She gives and receives half her gifts on December 25 and the other half on January 7. But her children and grandchildren always make the effort to get off work and school to celebrate what she considers real Christmas. “We do it here, in my family, by the grace of God,” she said.

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.

Orthodox Christmas 2007


Although the term “Christian” is recorded as first being used in Antioch, the first center of the Church was in Jerusalem and the first Believers were Egyptian, during what is called the “Flight into Egypt”.

When Emperor Constantine called for a clarification of Christian Beliefs and the many divergent views of Christianity were formalized, Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople, Jerusalem and Rome became the primary centers of Christianity. Rome later broke away but the others remained Orthodox.

When the Western World adopted the Gregorian Calendar, the Orthodox Church continued to use the Julian and today is therefore Christmas Eve for Orthodox Christians. Armenia became officially Christian before the reign of Constantine; the Armenian Church continues to operate independently and follows the Gregorian Calendar.

Related Links >
The Orthodox Church >

The Orthodox Church: New Edition(Paperback) >

The Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation(photo source) >

The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in Jerusalem >

Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople >

The Christian Coptic Orthodox Church Of Egypt >

Merry Christmas >

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