In the 15th century St. Symeon of Thessaloniki, in his treatise "Dialogue Against Heresies", wrote:
"If [the Latins] reproach us for the furnace of the three children, they should not congratulate themselves. Because we light up not a furnace but candles and lights, and we offer incense to God according to custom; and we represent [in painting] the angel, and it is not a man that we send. Furthermore, we place three boys, pure as those children, to sing their canticle according to tradition."
What St. Symeon is describing here is a liturgical drama or play called The Three Children in the Furnace, which took place every year on the Sunday before Christmas in the Great Church of Hagia Sophia in his time, and it seems likely also in Thessaloniki and perhaps other places. He is describing it with the purpose of differentiating the Byzantine practice from the Latin practice of biblical theatrical performances in a liturgical setting. In the West they would perform this play with a real furnace, with an actual person playing an angel and descending into it, and they would compose polyphonic music specifically for this performance. St. Symeon argued that what took place in Byzantium was fully in line with tradition, and did not add innovations contrary to tradition. What is interesting however is that this drama that took place in Constantinople was not full of symbolic imagery, but it describes an actual play of which four texts with the musical notation are preserved today.
On the Sunday before Christmas in 1432, Bertrandon de la Broquiere attended this liturgical drama in Hagia Sophia, which was officiated by the Patriarch. And before him Ignatius of Smolensk, who was in Constantinople in 1389, noted that on the Sunday before Christmas he saw in Hagia Sophia "how they prepared the furnace of the three children." Thus in less than half a century we have testimony from three witnesses of the existence of this liturgical drama of the Three Holy Children.
The four manuscripts known to contain this play are:
A - Athens, National Library, MS 2406, dated 1453.
I - Iveron Monastery, MS 1120, dated 1458.
S - Mount Sinai, MS 1527, 16th cent.
L - Lavra Monastery, MS ^ 165, presumably 17th century.
A comparison of these four texts show remarkable agreement.
Questions do arise however, such as: How far back does this liturgical drama go? Did it exist in the East due to influence from the West or the other way around? The answer to the first question is that it seems that it went back several centuries, and the answer to the second question is that it seems the West was in fact influenced from the East. In an eleventh century manuscript of the typikon of the Great Church, there is reference to a "holy furnace" that was ceremoniously incensed by the patriarch and emperor in the sanctuary on Holy Saturday (which is when the Orthodox Church liturgically sings the canticle of the Three Holy Children). The existence of this furnace in the sanctuary seems to indicate that the liturgical drama also existed at this time, although we can only speculate. It may also be the reason why the Orthodox Church celebrates the Three Holy Children on both December 17th and on the Sunday before Christmas.
Interestingly, this play survived in the Orthodox Church following the fall of Constantinople when at some point it was transferred to Russia. In the sixteenth century there is testimony to its performance there, where according to rule if Christmas fell on a Monday or Tuesday then the play was done on the Sunday of the Forefathers two Sundays before Christmas, but if on any other day of the week then it was performed on the Sunday of the Fathers one Sunday before Christmas.
A description of this play can be summarized as follows from the Russian version as it took place in the Cathedral of the Holy Wisdom in Novgorod in 1548, which was similar to the earlier version in Byzantium with slight differences. It should be noted that in Russia the play took place during Matins after the sixth ode of the canon, in contrast to the Byzantine practice of staging it after Matins and before the Divine Liturgy.
An archdeacon would, after being blessed by the archbishop, go into the altar and grab three candles, then he went back out to the archbishop. He is followed by a Chaldean and three children bound and another Chaldean behind. They pass behind the furnace and the children are threatened by the Chaldeans, while the children respond they are not afraid and their God is mighty enough to save them. When they arrive before the archbishop they sing the verse: "Hasten to help us." When they finish the archdeacon gives the three candles to the archbishop, who then gives them to each of the three children. The Chaldeans then lead the three children to the furnace and they sprinkle it with moss-powder to create flames. While other songs are being sung by the Chaldeans, the children and the archdeacon, the children enter the furnace and an angel descends into the furnace. After singing praises in the furnace, the three children emerge from the furnace one by one and the Chaldeans bring them before the archbishop. Then they all sing a polychronion to the archbishop wishing him many years, they bow, receive his blessing, and depart into the altar.
The last reference to this play is from 1645, and completely fell out of use probably in 1648. The reason is perhaps because the play became too elaborate to stage and polyphonic music was being used. In 1649 the Russian Church began to be hostile to such music, and Patriarch Joseph ordered all musical instruments to be burned on a pyre in Moscow.
For more information, see "Liturgical Drama in Byzantium and Russia", by Miloš M. Velimirović, in Dumbarton Oaks Papers Vol. 16 (1962), pp. 349-385.