Christmas, for most Orthodox Christians, is a time of fasting, prayer, worship, sacraments, spiritual renewal, and philanthropy. It is a more religious celebration that is not as commercial as in some cultures. It is a time where we also have many traditions that help make it the beautiful holiday it is.
#1 Fasting before Christmas is harder than fasting for Lent
All those Christmas cookies really do you in on the days leading up to Christmas, also why does everything Christmas have to be made with MILK? Also fair warning—whilst eating Greek kourambiedes do not inhale because you WILL choke on the powdered sugar, nothing like a little danger in a cookie I suppose.
#2 If your name is Chris/Christina you feel a little petty for having your namesday be on Christmas day
Yes, you get to celebrate being named after Christ but unfortunately the presents are usually grouped together, nothing like a 2 for 1 deal, am I right?
#3 You get to watch your friends exchange gifts on December 25th but you have to wait until January 7th.
Some jurisdictions are still on the Old ‘Julian’ Calendar and have to wait an extra 13 days for Christmas to happen… patience is a virtue!
#4 Part of decorating the Christmas tree (Badnjak) includes burning it in on Christmas Eve and then baking it into bread.
Look up this cool Serbian Tradition! Just don’t stand too close to the fire because you might lose an eyebrow or two.
#5 You kind of know where the 12 days of Christmas really comes from.
It’s the amount of days between His birth and Epiphany! A lot of people even keep their decorations up until then. Why do you need 11 pipers piping for that?
#6 You’re really confused about who Santa really is.
Is he St. Nicholas of Myra? Is he St. Basil? And when are you going to exchange gifts? Greek Orthodox Christians in Greece traditionally exchange presents on New Year’s Day, the feast day of St. Basil the Great
#7 Christmas Eve ham? Try a 12-part vegetarian extravaganza including perogies, cabbage rolls, beets, borscht, and potatoes that symbolize the 12 Apostles.
This particular tradition is called Sochevnik in Russian. Good thing we’ve been fasting for so long because that dinner sounds delicious.
#8 Your family is a Christmas Eve church family or a Christmas Day one, either way you celebrate the Nativity in a prayerful way and with communion of course!
A picture from the church of the nativity. According to Holy Tradition, that spot is where the star indicated the place of Christ’s birth!
#9 Your Christmas music has been playing on repeat since November.
“The best way to spread Christmas cheer is singing loud for all to hear” –Elf
The hymns of the church for the Nativity are filled with so much beauty and joy! My church has had the tradition where our youth group would go and sing carols to sick and elderly parishioners, and the joy they experienced when we would come sing makes your entire week .
#10 You’re genuinely excited for the coming of the Christ. You have been praying, and you keep the true meaning of Christmas, the Nativity of our Savior, close to your heart.
He came to save us! Let us rejoice!
“‘She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.’ All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel’ (which means ‘God with us’).” -Matthew 1:21-23
Ultimately Christmas is a time for families and friends to get together. There is so much beauty that we all share in our ‘traditions’ that everyone celebrates Christmas in their own special way. Orthodoxy, being a part of history for centuries, has molded some beautiful festivities that bring us together because of our mutual love for Christ.
Well that was fast (pun intended). It’s already the second week in November. That means Thanksgiving is rapidly approaching, and of course, that means I saw a commercial with Santa in it this past weekend. Fiat is already preparing for Christmas, it would seem.
But for Orthodox Christians, the preparation for Christmas doesn’t begin until November 15th–the day on which the Advent fast begins, the forty day preparation for the Nativity.
Now, if you’re like me, your first thought is, “No more meat,” and your second thought is, “No more meat,” and your third thought is, “Wow, this gives me an excuse to eat bacon every meal until November 15th.”
But fasting has more meaning than that, has more value than that, and I would argue that in college, that value is augmented. It’s impossible to say that a certain arena of our spiritual lives is more important than another, but my experience of fasting in college life tells me that it’s really unique for us, as students. I’d like to think about why.
Firstly, I dunno about y’all, but I had about zero control over what I ate in high school. Whatever was in the pantry was going to be breakfast and lunch for the school day, and whatever my family cooked for dinner was going to be dinner. When it was a fasting period, my mother and father ensured that the only food purchased/prepared was in accordance with the fast. On the off-chance I was purchasing food (maybe on a Wednesday or a Friday) I occasionally forgot–when I was a little kid I always used to buy chili dogs at Friday Night football games–but I was usually pretty solid.
By Larry Miller via Wikimedia Commons
Most of my fasting was, thereby, the choice of my family. That’s fine and good, that’s the passing on of values and traditions, that’s important. But now, I go to the dining hall every day, and there’s a vegetarian station and a vegan station and salads AND A PERMANENT TACO BAR WHICH IS TOTALLY BONKERS. If I don’t want dining hall food, I often cook for myself, and I’m the guy buying the groceries. If I fast, it’s my choice. I always have an opportunity, I always have the means. Fasting, much more so than before, is a decision that I make, and I own the consequences whether I make it or not.
The question easily follows: why make the choice, then?
There is, of course, an easy answer: because we are told to. Obedience is vital, but it is always good to understand why it is we do what we do–especially because fasting is one of the best ways to begin a discussion with someone else on campus about Orthodoxy. People constantly ask me if I’m a vegan/vegetarian, and it opens the door to introduce them to the faith.
So, why fast? I’m no theologian or seminarian, so I can’t tell you perfectly. That’s a good question for a priest.
I can tell you, however, how fasting impacts me.
It makes me feel better. More like the person I’m supposed to be, the person I wish I could be more consistently. Fasting–a little choice, a simple choice, three times a day–recaptures that feeling you sometimes get after an amazing sermon, after acts of service, after reading a prayer or scripture, after hearing a beautiful hymn. Fasting, in short, brings us closer to God.
People will ask how it does this. Quite simply, by letting go of something earthly, there is more room for the heavenly. By relinquishing a tether to the body, you can acquire a tether to the soul.
All of this being said, I don’t really feel the need to understand how, I just have the experience that it does. I have an opportunity to grow closer to God, and I always try to take those opportunities.
By vxla via flickr
But, in all things, in all arenas of the spiritual life, nothing is a panacea. Nothing is an end-all, be-all. Fasting without prayer and almsgiving, fasting without daily reading and service attendance, will likely falter. Of course, by the same logic, prayer life falters without fasting. The spiritual life is holistic, and fasting is an integral piece in the heavenly pie.
The Advent fast begins on November 15th (with a day off for Thanksgiving, and oh, what a glorious day that is). I encourage you to find the permanent taco bar in your dining hall, make a daily choice, and see what it does for you. I think you’ll like what you find.