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How to prepare for Christmas Byzantine-style

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In 379 A.D, St. Gregory Nazianzus preached a sermon that changed Christmas in the Eastern church forever. Specifically, it changed the day Christmas was celebrated in Constantinople and throughout the Eastern church. Before that, Byzantine Christians celebrated the manifestation of God coming into the world, or Theophany, Jan. 6, their feast day commemorating the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River. But St. Gregory believed that they should join Rome in celebrating Christ's birthday Dec. 25.

After St. Gregory’s departure, Constantinople resumed observing Christmas Jan. 6. But when St. John Chrysostom became archbishop a few years later, he revived the observance of Christmas Dec. 25. To this day, instead of Merry Christmas, Byzantine Christians greet one another on Christmas with the opening words of St. Gregory’s message — “Christ is born! Glorify him!”

In the more than 2,000 years since Christ was born, cultures around the world have developed a variety of ways to prepare for and celebrate the Christmas season. For example, in many Eastern Rite churches, Nov. 14 marks the first day of preparation for Christmas, a period called the St. Philip’s Fast.

Much like Lent, also known as the Great Fast, St. Philip’s Fast is a 40-day period of preparation. “The traditional fast is a strict abstinence on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, that is, a fast from meat and dairy,” said Father John G. Basarab, pastor of Epiphany of Our Lord Byzantine Catholic Church in Annandale. Though geographically located in the Arlington diocese, the parish is part of the Byzantine Catholic Eparchy of Passaic, N.J. “Tuesday and Thursday are days of simple abstinence, that is, a fast from meat.” Laypeople usually follow some modification of the fast.

The meals are meant to be a reminder of the season, said Deacon Elmer Pekarik of Epiphany. “Fasting is never the same thing as starving,” he said. “If you’re starving, all you’re thinking of is your next meal. If you’re fasting, you're supposed to be thinking, ‘What makes this different from the other days? Oh yes, I'm supposed to prepare myself spiritually for the feast that’s coming up.’ That's our approach to fasting.”

The fast is relaxed during the weekend as well as on holy days such as the feast of St. Andrew, apostolic founder of the church at Byzantium, the feast of St. Nicholas, the patron and protector of the Byzantine Catholic Church, and the feast of the Immaculate Conception. On the feast days of Old Testament saints such as Obadiah, Habakkuk and Zephaniah, no Divine Liturgy, or Mass, is celebrated. This “makes us feel the longing of the prophets and faithful men and women of the Old Testament as they waited for the coming of the Messiah,” said Father Basarab. As it gets closer to Christmas, mentions of the coming birth of Christ become more frequent and obvious in the hymns and prayers of the Divine Liturgy and the Divine Office, or Liturgy of the Hours.

In the Byzantine-Ruthenian Rite, Christmas Eve is marked with the Holy Supper — a ritualized, 12-course meatless meal that begins when the first star, Sirius, is seen in the evening sky, said Father Basarab. The dinner table is decorated with a white tablecloth strewn with straw, symbolizing the manger where Jesus first lay. In the middle of the table is a loaf of bread with a lit candle placed in the center, a sign that Christ is the bread from heaven and light of the world.

After an Our Father is recited, the woman of the house blesses the family and guests with holy water, then the man of the house blesses the pets, “since the animals in the stable were the first witnesses of God born as man,” said Father Basarab. Next, the woman of the house dips slivers of garlic in honey to give to each person to eat as a symbol that “the coming of the Savior has overcome the bitterness of our exile from the Garden (of Eden) and our state of original sin,” said Father Basarab.

After toasts and prayers, the meal is eaten. “The first course is a sauerkraut and mushroom soup,” said Father Basarab. “There are other traditional foods such as bobalky: small, round breads served in sauerkraut or cabbage, or poppy seed and a honey base. There are pirohi or pierogi with a variety of fillings. The main course is fish. The dessert is kolachi: nut roll, poppy roll or apricot roll; kruschiki, a thin, crisp, fried dough cookie dusted with powdered sugar; and medovniki, a cookie sweetened with honey and a sugar glaze. Finally, at the completion of the meal, candies and nuts are served.

“These are the traditional foods,” said Father Basarab. “However, in multicultural places such as the U.S., families swap certain dishes for ones of their own heritage or family favorites.” Many Byzantine-Ruthenians have central European backgrounds. “The main point is to follow the serving principle of bitter to savory to sweet,” he said. After the meal, carols are sung or the Nativity story is reenacted

As in the Roman Catholic Church, Christmas is celebrated for 12 days, ending with the Epiphany. “The feast is so strong, it can't be contained in one day,” said Deacon Pekarik. 

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021