By Metropolitan Symeon of New Smyrna
1. The second longest fast after Great Lent is the Nativity Fast. It also consists of forty days, but it lacks the strictness of the fast of Great Lent. It begins on November 15th and ends on December 24th.
2. The feast of the Nativity in the flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, is the second biggest Despotic Feast of the Christian calendar. Until the middle of the fourth century the Eastern Church celebrated the feasts of the Nativity and Epiphany on the same day, which was January 6th. Christmas as a separate feast, celebrated on December 25th, was introduced to the East from the West at the end of the fourth century.
Saint John Chrysostom, who was the first to speak of the feast of Christmas, calls it "the metropolis of all feasts" (PG 48, 752), and informs us in 386 that "ten years ago this feast became known and familiar to us" (PG 49, 351).
By dividing the once united feast and the introduction of three separate feasts, the Nativity on December 25th, the Circumcision on January 1st, and the Baptism on January 6th, the so-called Twelve Days of Christmas was formed, which consists of the period from December 25th until January 6th. In this way the ancient unity of these two feasts of the Nativity and Baptism of our Lord survived.
3. The great importance of this new feast of Christmas was acquired over time in the consciousness of the Church and the piety of the people, especially with monastics, who established the condition for fasting before Christmas. This was certainly influenced and shaped by the forty days of fasting of Great Lent immediately before Pascha.
Just as with the feast so also with the fast, the preparation period for the birth of the Savior first appeared in the West, where this fast was called the Lent of Saint Martin, because it began on the feast of this Saint of the Western Church. The same was repeated with the East, where many called the Nativity Fast the Lent of Saint Philip, because it began the day after the commemoration of this Apostle.
The first historical references we have of the fast before Christmas, go back to the fifth century in the West and the sixth century in the East. Of the Eastern Fathers who refer to it are Anastasios of Sinai, Nikephoros the Confessor, Theodore the Studite and Theodore Balsamon.
4. At first, it seems that this fast was of a short duration. Theodore Balsamon, who wrote in the twelfth century, and informs us of what took place in his time, clearly calls it a "seven-day" period. Under the influence of Great Lent, however, it also extended to forty days, without employing its stringency.
5. How should we keep this fast? Throughout the entire duration of these forty days there is no accommodation for meat, dairy products and eggs. However, fish is allowed to be consumed every day except Wednesdays and Fridays, from November 15th until December 17th. Fish is also allowed on the feast of the Entrance of the Theotokos, which falls on November 21st, no matter what day of the week it falls on.
From the 18th to the 24th of December, which is Christmas Eve, only oil and wine are allowed to be consumed, except Wednesdays and Fridays on which we adhere to a strict fast. We should keep a fast of dry foods (xerophagy) also on the first day of the fast on November 15th, as well as on Christmas Eve, unless of course they fall on a Saturday or Sunday.
Source: Translated by John Sanidopoulos.