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.
Image from Ted on Flickr
Well, here we are! Less than one week away from the Nativity of our Lord.
Hopefully, you’ve all finished finals–if you’re still in school right now, keep fighting strong–I promise it’ll be over soon. You should check out our post on finals to get an added boost.
But most of us are at home, and the full brunt of the season has dawned upon us. Last-minute gifts are being acquired and wrapped at a breakneck pace; wild Santas roam every red-and-green shopping center; another artist has come out with another Christmas album.
This, I hope, will not become a typical post bemoaning the secularization of Christmas–that is not to say that the secularization of Christmas isn’t happening in a very tangible way, because it is. But I would not like to succumb to the temptation, to derail everything the world has thrown at us. That is, quite simply, not fair. There is great merit to Mariah Carey and well-dressed carolers, to finely-decorated houses, and, most especially, the proliferation of candy canes. It is tricky ground, to comprehensively condemn secular Christmas. All things with balance.
So, instead of a condemnation, I’d like to simply mention today, as I did in the aforementioned finals post, where our focus should lie.
I cannot, for the life of me, remember who precisely gave the sermon which I’m currently recalling–I’ve been preached to by three different priests/bishops in the past three weeks. I hope you can forgive me. If I had to say, I think it was Fr. John Baker of Christ the Savior in Chicago who reminded me of this (edit: upon further review, the call on the field is reversed. It was Fr. Michael Butler of Holy Transfiguration in Livonia):
When the wise men went to Herod and said: “Hey, that newborn king? Yeah, the Messiah, that one…uh, where is he?” Herod immediately turned to his scribes and the Pharisees and said, “What are these guys talking about?” The scribes and the learned men responded, “Oh yeah, there’s supposed to be a Messiah born in Bethlehem right now.” So the wise men went on their way, and Herod began plotting to kill this newborn king.
That inaccurate recollection likely tells you nothing new. It’s part of the Christmas story that you’ve heard many times before. However, something so crucial is missed in there, and that’s what Fr. John (probably? maybe? edit: Fr. Michael) pointed out in this sermon:
The scribes knew.
The scribes knew. The wise men from the east asked, and the wise men that Herod had–for that’s for whom Herod called, he called for his wise men, the men he expected to understand the prophets–the wise men that Herod had, answered. And they knew! They were aware that this was going down, that the Messiah may have just come into the world. They figured it out! They knew!
And they stayed with Herod. They did nothing. They aren’t really even heard from again.
This crucial point reminds me of the days leading up to the crucifixion of Christ, when Jesus washes the feet of his disciples. Jesus washes his disciples’ feet in John 13–it’s an extraordinary read, and I suggest you give it time today. However, there is one verse–verse 17–that is of paramount importance. Jesus has just washed his disciples’ feet, reminded them that they view him as the Teacher, reminded them of all of the examples he has given them, and then he says:
If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them. – John 13:17
It’s not enough to know things. And that simple, obvious little phrase changes the whole game.
Because it’s not enough–it simply isn’t enough–to know that Christmas is so easily made secular, is so easily stripped of its spiritual meaning. It’s not even enough to know that the Messiah has come–like Herod’s scribes did. They knew! But if you know these things, blessed are you if you do them. Blessed are you if you act off of your knowledge. The enlightened aren’t blessed; the enlightened and active are.
This is wildly important. It isn’t enough to go to church on Sunday, when you know there is church during the week–the pre-feast and post-feast celebrations. It isn’t enough to know the Christmas story, when you don’t spend time taking in and supplying for the travelling, poor, and cold Marys and Josephs of the world. It simply isn’t enough to know, and it isn’t even enough to know and talk, to know and bemoan the secularization of this world, as this post endeavored to avoid doing.
The enlightened aren’t blessed; the enlightened and active are.
My encouragement to you, my friends, is to go to your church website, to text your priest, to ask your parents–something–and figure out what’s going on this Christmas season. Do a thing–any thing–that is indicative of this wonderful knowledge you’ve been blessed to receive, the knowledge of salvation and rejoicing and victory that doesn’t make it to many in this world. Be active this Christmas season.
The OCF Blog will take Christmas break with the rest of you, as an opportunity to recuperate, evaluate, and grow. We will return after the New Year–and of course, all of the College Conferences–on Monday, January 9th.
Christ is Born! Glorify Him!
As always, feel free to comment away with how you experience it, and share it with others, that they can remember the true significance of Christmas this year.
That’s all for me.
The man to whom I’m going to introduce you was not a scrooge, he was a kind decent, mostly good man. Generous to his family, upright in his dealings with other men. But he just didn’t believe all that incarnation stuff which the churches proclaim at Christmas Time. It just didn’t make sense and he was too honest to pretend otherwise. He just couldn’t swallow the Jesus Story, about God coming to Earth as a man.
“I’m truly sorry to distress you,” he told his wife, “but I’m not going with you to church this Christmas Eve.” He said he’d feel like a hypocrite. That he’d much rather just stay at home, but that he would wait up for them. And so he stayed, and they went to the midnight service.
Shortly after the family drove away in the car, snow began to fall. He went to the window to watch the flurries getting heavier and heavier and then went back to his fireside chair and began to read his newspaper. Minutes later he was startled by a thudding sound…then another, and then another. Sort of a thump or a thud. At first he thought someone must be throwing snowballs against his living room window. But when he went to the front door to investigate he found a flock of birds huddled miserably in the snow. They’d been caught in the storm and, in a desperate search for shelter, had tried to fly through his large landscape window.
Well, he couldn’t let the poor creatures lie there and freeze, so he remembered the barn where his children stabled their pony. That would provide a warm shelter, if he could direct the birds to it. Quickly he put on a coat, galoshes, tramped through the deepening snow to the barn. He opened the doors wide and turned on a light, but the birds did not come in. He figured food would entice them in.
So he hurried back to the house, fetched bread crumbs, sprinkled them on the snow, making a trail to the yellow-lighted wide open doorway of the stable. But to his dismay, the birds ignored the bread crumbs, and continued to flap around helplessly in the snow. He tried catching them…He tried shooing them into the barn by walking around them waving his arms…Instead, they scattered in every direction, except into the warm, lighted barn.
And then, he realized that they were afraid of him. To them, he reasoned, I am a strange and terrifying creature. If only I could think of some way to let them know that they can trust me…That I am not trying to hurt them, but to help them. But how? Because any move he made tended to frighten them, confuse them. They just would not follow. They would not be led or shooed because they feared him.
“If only I could be a bird,” he thought to himself, “and mingle with them and speak their language. Then I could tell them not to be afraid. Then I could show them the way to the safe warm barn. But I would have to be one of them so they could see and hear and understand.” At that moment the church bells began to ring. The sound reached his ears above the sounds of the wind. And he stood there listening to the bells listening to the bells pealing the glad tidings of Christmas. And he sank to his knees in the snow.
“What is your favorite holiday tradition?”
Whenever I am asked that common question of the season, I think of plenty of family traditions and it is difficult to pick a favorite. Every year, on the weekend after Thanksgiving, my family and I go to pick out our Christmas tree. My sister and I decorate the tree with ornaments from as far back as our mom’s first grade art project. On Christmas Eve, my dad’s side of the family goes to my grandmother’s house to exchange presents before we all head over to Vesperal Liturgy together. On Christmas Day, both my mom and dad’s sides of the family come over to our house for dinner and a gift exchange. There are a lot of traditions to choose from.
As I analyze the question, “What is your favorite holiday tradition?” I feel quite foolish for coming up with a list of traditions that have very little to do with what Christmas is all about. There is no doubt that the American society has built Christmas on consumerism and ‘the season of giving.’ The American lifestyle has funneled our mentality to focus on shopping, Christmas music, and snow. But as an Orthodox Christian I ask myself,
What if the malls were closed before Christmas? What if the Christmas radio station decided to not play Christmas music this year? What if we didn’t have a white Christmas? Isn’t there something more?
Indeed there is. Recently, I learned about the ultimate Christmas Tradition, which is the genealogy of Christ from Matthew 1:1-17. What does that have to do with anything? Glad you asked. Christmas, despite what our society believes, is solely based on one thing: God became man. Jesus Christ was born into forty-two generations of sin. He bridged together the Old and New Testaments and invited both Jews and Gentiles to partake in His Father’s Kingdom. He was given life so that He could give us life.
For the average American college student like myself, that is a lot to try to understand. So I broke it down like this:
In regards to Christmas, there is “tradition” and there is “Tradition.” I have been so used to practicing all the “traditions” like decorating the tree or hanging up stockings that I have almost completely neglected the true “Tradition.” The way that I see things, there are two ways to approach the Christmas season. I can treat it like a piece of dark chocolate, or I can treat it like a candy cane.
Image courtesy of 1Sock on Flickr
Almost everybody likes Hershey’s dark chocolate Kisses simply because they taste really good. The bad thing about Hersey’s, though, is that it does not last long. Similarly, the “traditions” are fun and make you feel good, but there is not much depth or longevity to them. On the other hand, candy canes have a stronger taste to them and it takes a while to eat them. You can take your time to eat a candy cane, or you can chew through it quickly without taking time to fully enjoy it. Like candy canes, the “Tradition” has a strong initial impression that takes more time to understand and get used to.
Dark chocolate and candy canes both taste good and there is nothing wrong with them. At least for 20-year-old college student me, I can get caught up in the dark chocolate traditions of shopping, decorating, and eating, and forget about the true meaning of Christmas. I need to look beyond the “traditions” and find the “Tradition.”
Like eating a candy cane, which is decorated with the white of purity indicating the Virgin birth, the red of Christ’s passion and Blood, and shaped in the form of the Good Shepherd’s staff, I need to be willing to take my time and observe the true Tradition, my favorite Tradition, which is the celebration of the Incarnation of our Lord.
About the Author
This is a guest post from Anthony Jonas. Anthony is a junior in the Human Development program at Hellenic College, and a former member of the Student Advisory Board. Over the past year, he has served as the Student Administrative Intern for OCF.