November 15, 2020

The Christmas Fast


By Metropolitan Symeon of New Smyrna

1. The second longest period of fasting after Great Lent is the Christmas fast, known in the language of our Orthodox people as the Forty-day fast. It also includes forty days, but it does not have the strictness of the fasting of Great Lent. It starts on November 15th and ends on December 24th.

2. The feast of the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ is the second great Despotic feast of the Christian festal calendar. Until the middle of the fourth century, the Church of the East celebrated the birth and baptism of Christ under the name Epiphany on the same day, January 6th. Christmas as a separate feast, celebrated on December 25, was introduced to the East by the West around 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" and informs us around the year 386 that "it is not yet the tenth year since this day became clear and familiar to us." With the division of the once single feast and the introduction of the three separate feasts, the Nativity on the 25th of December, the Circumcision on the 1st of January and the Baptism on the 6th of January, the so-called Twelve Days was formed, ie the festive period from the 25th of December to the 6th of January. Thus the ancient unity of the two great feasts of the Nativity and the Baptism of the Lord was somehow preserved.

3. The great importance of the new celebration of Christmas and the reverence of the faithful and especially of the monks for it, was acquired over time in the consciousness of the Church, and became the preconditions for the establishment of the pre-Christmas fast. This was certainly influenced by the already forty-day fast of Great Lent, which preceded Easter. Like the feast, fasting in preparation for the Savior's birthday first appeared in the West, where this fast was called the Lent of Saint Martin, because it began with the feast of this Saint of the Western Church. The same thing happened to us, where many call the Christmas fast the Lent of Saint Philip because it obviously begins the day after the commemoration of the Apostle. The first historical testimonies we have about fasting before Christmas date back to the West in the fifth century and to the East in the sixth century. Anastasios the Sinaite, the Patriarch of Constantinople Nikephoros the Confessor, Saint Theodore the Studite, as well as the Patriarch of Antioch Theodore Balsamon mentioned it.

4. The fast at first, it seems, was short. Theodore Balsamon, who writes about the twelfth century - and consequently informs us about what was valid in his time - clearly says it was "seven days". However, under the influence of the fast of Great Lent, it was also extended to forty days, without nevertheless assuming the strictness of the former.

How should we fast for it? Throughout the duration of the forty days we do not consume meat, dairy and eggs. Instead, we are allowed to consume fish every day - except, of course, Wednesday and Friday - from the beginning until December 17th. We also consume fish during the feast of the Entrance of the Theotokos, any day that falls. From the 18th to the 24th of December, the eve of the feast, only wine and oil is allowed - except, of course, the days of Wednesday and Friday during which we observe a fast from these also. Also,  with we should fast from everything and consume only dry foods on the first day of fasting, November 15th, as well as on the eve of the feast, unless of course they fall on Saturday or Sunday.

Source: Translated by John Sanidopoulos.