January 5, 2012
If Eastern Orthodox Christmas customs seem very "Old Country," it's because they are.
The Ukrainians, Serbians and Carpatho-Rusyns, for example, created their at-home rituals in little villages long ago. They celebrated simply in their own languages but with deep significance. Each custom was informed by their Orthodox faith.
Some share traditions, such as refraining from eating meat, dairy products and eggs for 40 days before Christmas and including garlic and honey in the Christmas Eve meal to symbolize the bitterness and sweetness in life.
This year, Orthodox Christians will celebrate Christmas on Jan. 7, according to the Julian calendar, created by Roman Emperor Julius Caesar.
Other Christians mark their Christmas celebrations on Dec. 25, according to the Gregorian calendar, which was created by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582, centuries after the western and eastern churches separated in 1054.
Customs are the complement to the real meaning of Christmas for the Rev. Dragoljub C. Malich, pastor of St. Nicholas Serbian Orthodox Church in Monroeville.
"The focus is on Christ and the Christian faith for salvation and worship," he said.
Malich again will lead the Christmas liturgies, as he has during his 42 years of ministry at the church.
On Christmas Eve, customs bring families together at a table filled with many foods that are free of meat, dairy products and eggs.
"There is a variety of tastes of everything," Malich said. "Even children have a taste of garlic."
It is a busy time.
"On Christmas Eve," Malich said, "there is no sitting down with all the preparations."
Families with fireplaces burn an oak Yule log, symbolizing "the scent and warmth of God's love for the people," he said.
Straw is spread on the floor and covered by a sheet. Because straw nestled the baby Jesus in the manger, the Orthodox honor its use.
Malich described the good conversations at past gatherings; "the hot toddies of diluted, sweetened brandy; nuts and fruits; carols and prayers."
Later, in church, Bible readings, special hymns and a special sermon spark "a radiant atmosphere," Malich said.
"It's like everyone was given a shot of spirit, happiness, gladness and love."
All of this solemn and jubilant celebration comes after "six weeks of fasting, not Christmas partying."
His congregation sees no reason to join other Christmas revelers, including some of the Orthodox brethren, in their December holiday.
"We're holding on to the old calendar," the pastor said.
He said some members have told him: "This gives me the opportunity to celebrate Christmas spiritually when the noise and commercialism are over."
To Malich and others of the Orthodox tradition, "the date is not important as is the meaning of the day."
For the Rev. Steve Repa, pastor of SS. Peter & Paul Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Carnegie, the story of Christmas is one the world was waiting to hear.
"God had been revealed through natural revelation, then through divine revelation in time and space," he said.
"It's like God said: ‘Hey, look up. This is what it is. This is who I am.'"
That was the first Christmas. More than 2,000 years later, the Ukrainians bring customs of their peasant pasts to their contemporary celebrations.
The white tablecloth that covers the Christmas Eve table represents an earth frozen and devoid of life, Repa explained. The straw resting upon it brings thoughts of the manger. The festive tablecloth that will cover them both celebrates Jesus and the people now freed from the chains of sin.
The meal on Christmas Eve begins with a toast and a remembrance — one by one — of those who have died in the past year.
"Those who were and those who are (still here) are invited," Repa said.
"In Christ, we are one. We are not separated from one another."
And at the repast, the 12 foods that traditionally are served represent the 12 months, the 12 tribes of Israel, the 12 apostles.
Those foods are wheat; soup; baked, fried or pickled fish; cabbage rolls; pyrohy with potato, sauerkraut or prune filling; cooked beans; sauerkraut and peas; mushrooms; stewed dried fruit; pompushky, a dough with poppy seed, apricot or prune filling; garlic; and honey.
Many of the preserved foods served on Christmas Eve, such as mushrooms, sauerkraut and peas, have been brought back to life, too, Repa said.
With 29 years of ministry, Repa remembers a Christmas Eve when he and his siblings were racing through the house.
"There's no running, no shouting," his mother told them. "Jesus is going to be born."
If the children were quiet enough, she said, they would hear the animals whispering to each other, as they whispered once in Bethlehem.
For too many families, there is no church after the Christmas Eve meal, which, Repa said, is his biggest disappointment.
"What if the shepherds had said: ‘Ah, we're too tired. We'll go in the morning.'"
On Christmas Day, the real feast is held, and the celebration continues for 12 days, until Epiphany.
Somehow, he said, "We've gotten everything upside down."
During Advent, the Orthodox deny themselves many foods, while others enjoy a calendar full of parties
After Christmas, he said, there's more than enough reason to celebrate for many days.
The words Ukrainians use to greet each other every Christmas Day mean "Christ is being born and will continue to be born," Malich said.
"The children believe in Santa Claus, and so do I," said the Rev. Robert Prepelka, pastor of St. John the Baptist Orthodox Church in Ambridge for the last five years of a 25-year priesthood.
His Carpatho-Rusyn congregation and others of the Orthodox faith celebrate Santa's giving spirit in the person of St. Nicholas, a third-century bishop of Myra in Turkey. His feast day for the Orthodox on Dec. 19 is a day for giving presents.
But as a child, Prepelka remembers having a celebration on Dec. 25 with a Christmas tree and presents. The date was close enough to St. Nicholas Day, and the United States was the melting pot, he explained.
"It was difficult for the children," he said about celebrating Christmas later than everyone else.
The "Holy Supper," as the Christmas Eve meal is called, always began when the first star was shining.
"Father always lit a single candle on the table," he said.
"This was the star of Bethlehem."
The father then would anoint the foreheads of those present and sing the main hymn of the day. Afterward, there was a blessing over the food. Next, came the tasting of honey and garlic.
"These things were explained to the children and guests," Prepelka said, "just like during a (Jewish Passover) seder meal."
Each custom has its spiritual corollary: The breaking of bread symbolizes how Jesus is the "Bread of Life," he explained.
The pastor remembered the "fasting soup" that was served. It could be lentil, split pea or mushroom.
"I'm not a mushroom eater," he said, "so I'm not a good Slav."
But his mother chopped the mushrooms small enough that the young boy enjoyed it. A dish of peas, rice and sautéed onions still is one of Prepelka's favorites.
The dishes, all meeting the dietary limitations, were reminiscent of those prepared in the mountain villages where the Carpatho-Rusyn people once lived.
"We're a Slavik group with no country of our own," he said.
They come from Poland, Ukraine and other places in the Carpathian Mountains, he said.
As the "Holy Supper" fed the people physically, the Great Compline service on Christmas Eve would offer spiritual food in preparation for Christ's birth.
At church on Christmas Day, there is anointing with oil, sharing of the blessed bread, carols and a message from the Metropolitan, a regional church leader.
"The Divine Liturgy is one beautiful thing after another," Prepelka said.
"The highlight is receiving the Eucharist."