7 January: It’s Christmas in the East!

By Germano Marani, SJ

"Christ is born!" "Let us glorify him!" This is the Christmas greeting in Eastern Slavic. Christmas falls either on 25 December or 7 January. The date shift is due to the fact that some Orthodox and Greek Catholic Churches still use the Julian calendar. Pope Gregory XIII modified the old calendar introduced by Julius Caesar (hence "Julian"), deleting, after scientific computations, the days between 5 and 14 October 1582, but for many churches Christmas remained on January 7.

Among Slavic Christians, the fasting and prayer, called "Philip's Fast" or Filippovka (because it begins after the feast of St. Philip the Apostle), lasts 40 days and includes abstaining from meat on Wednesdays and Fridays, although some abstain for the entire “Christmas Lent.” On Christmas Eve, fasting is stricter and includes total fasting for adults (or only boiled wheat and fruit) and ends at the appearance of the first star in the sky, usually in Church, by kissing the icon of the Nativity. "A joy never felt at the crib has arrived, and a shining star illuminates the whole world" (cf a traditional song), "the joy at the birth of the One whom Heaven cannot contain from the womb of a woman (one of us)".

The dinner on Christmas Eve includes 12 traditional dishes (like the Apostles and the months of the year) of vegetables or fish. The pater familias of the family blesses with holy water the courtyard, the house, room by room, and invites the bystanders to the table, after reciting the Our Father and a prayer to the Mother of God and lighting the candles. The most traditional dish, Kutya, consists of wheat cooked in water and seasoned with honey after cooking, as well as walnuts, raisins and poppy seeds. A basket of Kutya is also prepared for the dead so they can still join in the feast. Kutya has obvious parallels with Greek Kolliva (grain boiled in water, cooked with honey) in honor of the dead. Another typical Ukrainian dish, among others, are ravioli (Varenichki) which are stuffed in different ways, including with potatoes and mushrooms and other ingredients. Also on Christmas Eve, the dishes for Christmas lunch are prepared, including festive meat dishes. Christmas bread is baked in a wood-burning oven if possible, together with excellent sweets.

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Once the dinner ends with prayers, the children are free to sing Christmas carols for the families of their neighbors or acquaintances. They sing the "koliada" (or Koliadky), Christmas carols of ancient tradition, both during the Dinner, Sviati Vecher (the Holy Supper) and earlier in Church between Matins prayer and the Divine Liturgy (the Holy Mass). Parents stay home to wait for the other children who come to sing, giving them cookies. The singers present themselves to the master of the house and sing of the birth of Jesus, bringing good luck for the New Year. As they sing, they carry in procession a comet, a star, ring bells, dress as angels, shepherds, and magi, but also as devils, warriors, and as ugly old women who want to disturb the singing. These characters are based on popular beliefs and fairy tales, typical of Slavic and Nordic peoples who relive incredible feats through the stories handed down by their grandparents.

On Christmas morning, we all go to church to participate in the Divine Liturgy. A small performance about the Nativity takes place inside the Church if the weather is too cold. After lunch, parents also make the rounds of relatives and friends to exchange greetings, singing Christmas carols with gusto. The Christmas celebrations continue with the feasts of the Three Hierarchs (Basil, Gregory the Theologian and John Chrysostom), along with the Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan where the blessing of water in the fountains of the village squares or in the churches is attended even by those who do not go to church very often.

In Russia (but not only there), it is very popular to immerse oneself in the icy water through an opening in the ice of the frozen lake in the shape of a cross, a reminder of the baptism of Christ and the baptism of believers. There is also the feast of the Jolka, where the Christmas tree that was set up the day before New Year's Day for churches that follow the Julian calendar, is decorated with garlands, lights and sweets and people gather to sing and celebrate Christmas together. The nativity scene (Vertep) is also becoming popular in some Orthodox or Byzantine Catholic countries. New, for example, is the exhibition of Nativity scenes made by children that is held every Christmas in the Orthodox Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow, where a Neapolitan nativity scene donated a few years ago is kept. Friends invite, this year only in photography, the nativity scenes made by children of the elementary school classes and catechism classes of Mantua and Rome (Italy).

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Posted by Communications Office - Editor in Curia Generalizia
Communications Office
The Communications Office of the General Curia publishes news of international scope on the central government of the Society of Jesus and on the commitments of the Jesuits and their partners. It also handles public relations.

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