Easter: Christians revel in Jesus’ resurrection, amid continuing pandemic guidelines

Crucifix on cliff, sunshine, Easter

Photo courtesy of Piqsels

SUNDAY, APRIL 4: Western Christians across the globe revel in the Resurrection of Jesus today, rejoicing in the promise of new life: It’s Easter! Following the solemn 40-day reflections of Lent and bridging into the Easter Triduum—the evening of Maundy Thursday through the evening of Easter Sunday—Christians celebrate a new day. (Note: Eastern Orthodox Christians will celebrate Pascha, the Orthodox term for Easter, on May 2, this year.)

The New Testament tells Christians that the Resurrection of Christ is the core of their faith, and on this grand day, bells are rung in praise and adherents joyously profess their faith.

A simple Easter: Virtual services for Easter will continue this year, although many churches will also be offering outdoor services from their parking lot. Photo by noratheone, courtesy of Flickr

EASTER IN 2021: VIRTUAL VS. IN-PERSON

Amid the continuing coronavirus pandemic and the widespread practice of social distancing, Easter Sunday will be different for families across the globe. Most families will have the option of streaming masses and services again this year—or, as many churches have begun holding “parking lot” services, gathering outdoors in a socially-distant environment.

Looking to access virtual Easter masses? Many churches will be hosting their own virtual Easter masses, but services are also available for streaming at Catholic TV and Christian World Media. To watch services from the Vatican, follow the YouTube channel Vatican News.

Family gatherings may be permitted, depending on the size of the gathering and who has been fully vaccinated, according to reports. However, as detailed in this article from ABC News, restriction guidelines are still being developed.

A TOMB AT SUNRISE

Gospel accounts say that early on the Sunday morning following Jesus’ crucifixion, Mary Magdalene (and, though accounts vary, other women as well) traveled to the tomb of Jesus to anoint his body. Upon reaching the tomb, an earthquake shook the ground; the stone was moved from the tomb, and a holy messenger announced that Jesus had risen from the dead. Though no specific moment of Resurrection is recorded, Mary Magdalene’s encounter has, since the 2nd century, been celebrated as Easter. The Resurrection is described as having occurred c. 30 CE.

For Christians today, meals most often involve white-and-gold settings, fresh lilies on the table and, in many homes, a sacred Paschal Candle. A traditional Easter menu also would typically feature lamb—a symbol of Christ, the Paschal Lamb. However, Easter hams now far outpace cuts of lamb.

In France and Belgium, the bells that “went to Rome on Maundy Thursday” return home for the evening Easter Vigil, only to bring Easter eggs to boys and girls—or so, the story has it.

In most countries with a substantial Christian population, Easter is a public holiday.

White rabbit, egg holder, candies, Easter

Photo courtesy of Pixnio

SECULAR EASTER: A BUNNY, EGGS & MORE

Easter in America may be characterized as much by the Easter Bunny and pastel-hued candies as it is by Christian joy in Christ’s Resurrection. Egg hunts, treat-filled baskets and festive brunches mark Easter for many American families.

EGGS: The springtime egg has symbolized the season’s new life since before the life of Jesus, drawing back to ancient civilizations. Nonetheless, the egg holds a place of prominence in many secular Easter traditions. Children around the globe search for hidden eggs, and decorating eggs can range from simple to elaborate—as much as the artist allows. International chocolatiers mold sweet concoctions in the shape of delicate eggs, with the most exquisite replications selling for hundreds of dollars.

RECIPES & RESOURCES

Looking for a great recipe or ideas to spruce up your Easter table?

Find delicious recipes, from appetizers to brunch to dessert, at Food Network and AllRecipes.

Give eggs extra style, or try an Easter craft, with ideas from HGTV and Martha Stewart.

Kid-friendly Easter coloring pages, cards, games and more are at the UK’s Activity Village.

St. Patrick’s Day: Learn the symbolism of the clover and get into the spirit of the Irish

“Be still and know that I am God.

Be still and know that I am.

Be still and know.

Be still.

Be.”

-St. Patrick

St. Patrick

Photo by DonkeyHotey, courtesy of Flickr

WEDNESDAY, MARCH 17: Top ‘o the mornin’!

Around the world today, revelers remember the legendary Saint Patrick of Ireland, while embracing the Irish culture through food, music, costuming and more. (Note: In 2021, limited festivities will still welcome visitors, but COVID-19 guidelines will be enforced at public events worldwide.)

ST. PATRICK: TRUTH AND LEGEND

St. Patrick

A statue of Saint Patrick in Aghagower, County Mayo, Ireland. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The legendary patron saint of Ireland began life c. 385 CE, in Roman Britain. With a wealthy family whose patron was a deacon, the young man who would become known as St. Patrick led a comfortable life until his teenage years, when he was kidnapped and taken as a slave to Gaelic Ireland. During his six years in Ireland, Patrick gained a deeper Christian faith. When he dreamed that God told him to flee to the coast, Patrick did so—and traveled home to become a priest. Following ordination, however, another dream prompted Patrick to do what no one expected: to return to Ireland.

As a Christian in Ireland, Patrick worked to convert the pagan Irish. With a three-leaved shamrock in hand to explain the Holy Trinity to the pagans, St. Patrick converted many. St. Patrick died on March 17, 461 at Downpatrick.

Surprisingly, the most widely known saint from Ireland was never formally canonized by the Catholic Church. Since no formal canonization process existed in the Church’s first millennium, St. Patrick was deemed a saint only by popular acclaim and local approval.

PATRICK’S ‘BREASTPLATE’

St. Pat’s Day may be a secular bash in many communities, but it also has deep religious roots that matter to millions. The purest forms of religious expression, each year, occur—naturally—in Ireland. One of the most popular posts in the decade-long history of ReadTheSpirit is a collection of three versions of the famous prayer known as The Breastplate:

Versions 1 and 2: Here is St. Patrick’s Breastplate in English prose and in 19th Century lines of a hymn.
Version 3:
We also have St. Patrick’s Breastplate in Gaelic.

You probably remember some of the most famous lines from St. Patrick, such as:
God’s shield to protect me,
God’s host to save me

And also:
Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,
Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me.

But, there is so much more to this classic prayer!

Alternatively, start here for a Gaelic version and follow the link to find two more English versions, one as poetry and one as refashioned for a hymn.

A CHRISTIAN FEAST DAY—AND AN EPIC FESTIVAL

St. Patrick’s Day was made an official Christian feast day by the early 17th century, observed by the Catholic church, Eastern Orthodox Christians, Lutherans and members of the Church of Ireland. Today, countries the world over offer citizens and tourists Irish-themed foods, drinks and culture on March 17. Dances, processions, performances and more illustrate the vibrancy of Irish history—all set against the very Irish color of green.

RECIPES, CRAFT IDEAS & MORE

Corned beef, on plate

Photo by Jeffreyw, courtesy of Flickr

Got dreams of hearty Irish stews, hot Reuben sandwiches and cold drinks? Get into the Irish spirit with these recipe ideas (and some crafts, too):

  • A plethora of easy-to-follow recipes, from brisket to soda bread, is at AllRecipes.
  • Kids can get into the spirit of the Irish with craft ideas from Parenting.com.
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Fat Tuesday, Ash Wednesday: It’s Mardi Gras and more as Christians look to Lent

Ash Wednesday ashes

Photo courtesy of Pixabay

TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 16 and WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 17: Whip up a batch of indulgent treats rich in eggs, sugar and cream, and let yourself indulge—it’s Fat Tuesday on February 16! On the following day, Christians will enter the repentant period of Lent, leading to Easter, beginning with Ash Wednesday.

Did you know? Originally, Fat Tuesday (or Mardi Gras, in French) was known as “Shrove Tuesday,” which derived from shrive, meaning “to confess.” 

FAT TUESDAY: TREATS GALORE

During the last 24 hours before the start of Western Christian Lent, recipes vary by country: English families fry up pancakes, Polish and Lithuanians serve donuts and Swedes and Finns cook up semla pastries. Yet all customs reflect the old Christian tradition of using up the rich foods in one’s home before starting the fasting season of Lent. Then, following Fat Tuesday, more than a billion Western Christians begin fasting for the start of the season of Lent.

A (MOSTLY) VIRTUAL MARDI GRAS: While there will be no Mardi Gras parades this year in New Orleans this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the famous city will be still be offering house floats, Mardi Gras cocktails in bars and restaurants, king cakes and more. In addition WYES-TV is releasing a special called “New Orleans Parades from the Past,” in a one-hour program available for viewing here.

(For details on the guidelines in New Orleans, check out the city’s Phased Reopening Guidelines.)

MARDI GRAS: CARNE LEVARE VS. CARNIVAL

The popular Carnival associated with Mardi Gras, primarily celebrated in Portuguese-, Spanish- and Italian-speaking countries, derives from carne levare, meaning “to take away flesh/meat.” Most years, street processions abound in Brazil and Venice for Carnival, while a customary eating of salted meat takes a literal meaning to the day in Iceland. (AFAR has an article on what Mardi Gras will look like in during the pandemic.)

PANCAKES & RACES: Indulging in paczkis (pronounced pounch-keys) may be customary in the United States, but the custom of eating pancakes in the United Kingdom takes place on such a massive scale that the tradition has all but been renamed “Pancake Day.” The most famous pancake race has been held annually since 1445 in Olney at Buckinghamshire (this year, the race has been canceled, but with plans to bring it back in full in 2022.) Legend has it that a housewife was once so busy making pancakes that she lost track of the time until she heard the church bells ringing for service, and she raced out of the house while still carrying her pan with pancakes. In Olney, contestants of the pancake race must carry a frying pan and toss pancakes along the race course; all participants are required to wear an apron and scarf. A church service always follows the races.

AUTHENTIC RECIPES: For all of those staying home on Mardi Gras, check out recipes for everything from jambalaya and crab cakes to king cake at Taste of Home and Southern Living.

ASH WEDNESDAY (& CLEAN MONDAY)

In the Western church, Ash Wednesday is a day of repentance and prayer. During a liturgy marking the day, a church leader typically swipes the ashes into the shape of a cross on the recipient’s forehead. Rather than wash the ashes, recipients are supposed to let the ashes wear off throughout the remainder of the day as part of their spiritual reflections.

2021 update: This year, many churches are offering alternatives to the typical Ash Wednesday services. Some are offering the application of ashes on the forehead via a cotton applicator, while others are offering DIY ashes. Check with your local congregation for details.

The Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke detail the story of Jesus spending 40 days fasting in the desert, where he is repeatedly tempted by Satan; similarly, Lent marks 40 days—not counting Sundays.

CLEAN MONDAY: Eastern Orthodox Christians will start Great Lent the same week as Western Christians, this year, and in 2021, March 2 is Clean Monday—the start of the fasting period for Eastern Christians that prohibits meat, dairy and various other foods. (For those following the Julian calendar, Clean Monday falls 13 days later, on the Gregorian March 15). Clean Monday—a public holiday in Greece—is commemorated with outdoor picnics, kite flying and shared family meals.

Our Lady of Lourdes: Amid pandemic, pilgrims still flock to grotto for hope, healing

Our Lady of Lourdes statue

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 11: In spite of advances of modern medicine, today’s Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes reminds us that millions of Christians around the world still look to Lourdes, after more than 150 years: those faithful believe that miraculous healing waters can be found in Lourdes, at a site where a young French girl first reported an apparition of the Virgin Mary on this day in 1858. Bernadette Soubirous was only 14 when she witnessed a series of apparitions, but she has since been canonized by the church—and millions of pilgrims flock to this site every year.

2021 NEWS: Though the  sanctuary shut down for months in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it has since reopened, with limits regarding social distancing and the number of people allowed on the grounds. Find out more at the sanctuary’s official website.

AN APPARITION: GUSTS OF WIND AND THE ‘IMMACULATE CONCEPTION’

On February 11, 1858, Bernadette Soubirous had gone to collect firewood with her sister, Toinette, and neighbor, Jeanne Abadie. Taking off her shoes to wade in water near the Grotto of Massabielle, Soubirous reported hearing the sound of two gusts of wind, in nothing around her moved except a wild rose in the grotto. At that time, Soubirous looked into the grotto. The 14-year-old reported seeing, in the grotto, a lady who wore a white dress and a blue sash, with a yellow rose on each foot. The lady asked Soubirous to pray the rosary with her.

Did you know? As Bernadette Soubirous reported the “lady” to have yellow roses on each foot, it remains common practice that pilgrims imitate this with Marian statues. 

Despite punishment from her parents over her reports, Soubirous returned to the grotto and witnessed the apparition again. After multiple encounters, the apparition instructed Bernadette to ask local clergy that a chapel be built at the grotto. After clergy demanded to know the apparition’s name, Bernadette was told: “I am the Immaculate Conception.” What Bernadette did not know is that, just three years earlier, Pople Pius IX had proclaimed the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. As the impoverished daughter of a family little involved in the church, it was a most surprising event when Bernadette began telling her family and local religious figures that she had seen the “Immaculate Conception”—an official term that experts say she had no way of knowing.

Grotto Lourdes Mary

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

LOURDES: PRAYERS, HEALING AND MIRACLES

Tradition has it that the apparition itself told Bernadette to dig in the ground to locate the spring, and from the very beginning, medical patients who drank this water reported miraculous cures. Today’s site of Our Lady of Lourdes is quite a complex operation: The site consists of more than 20 acres, 22 places of worship, a grotto and a sanctuary. The church officially recognizes 70 miracles, though upward of 7,000 pilgrims have claimed miracles from the Lourdes waters.

Looking for prayers for today? Check out Women for Faith and Family.

Pope Pius X knew that “miraculous” cures from Lourdes would be under intense investigation, and as such, he quickly requested the establishment of the Lourdes Medical Bureau. From its earliest days of receiving pilgrims, the grotto at Lourdes has housed an on-site Bureau Medical that welcomes any scientist in search of proof of the approved miracles. The Lourdes Medical Bureau continues to leave its records open to any medical doctor who specializes in the area of any cure.

Note: For pilgrims who can’t travel to France, many churches offer a Novena to Our Lady of Lourdes during February.

Candlemas, Groundhog Day, Imbolc: From Phil to snowdrops, mark a trio of holidays

Groundhog Day in a field groundhog

Photo courtesy of Pixy.org

MONDAY, FEBRUARY 1 and TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 2: Today’s Groundhog Day may have evolved from the ancient festival of Imbolc, but woodland creatures and coming-of-spring myths, these days, have little to do with the observance of the Christian feast that falls one day later: It’s the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple, known better as Candlemas.

Looking for Phil? The nationally-known predictions and events spurred by Punxsutawney Phil, the “official” groundhog of Groundhog Day, will be going virtual this year. (Most years, tens of thousands of visitors flock to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania for Groundhog Day, where “Phil” is regarded as the “one and only” weather predictor for the day.) For streaming information and more, click here.

snowdrops Candlemas Imoblc

Snowdrop flowers. Photo courtesy of Pixabay

No matter which holiday you’re celebrating, do so with the unifying themes for these first two days of February: renewal and hope. The first days of February bring new beginnings, and the Gaelic festival of Imbolc marks the start of spring.

CANDLEMAS: CANDLES, COINS AND SNOWDROPS

The feast of Candlemas focuses on the Gospel of Luke, which describes Mary and Joseph taking the baby Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem, 40 days after his birth. According to the gospel, Mary, Joseph and Jesus met a man named Simeon while at the Temple, who recognized Jesus as the Messiah and as the fulfillment of a prophesy. A woman at the temple, Anna, offered similar praise for Jesus. However, Simeon warned that Mary’s heart would someday be “pierced with a sword,” as the future would hold tragic events for her young son.

 

The Feast of the Presentation ranks as one of the oldest feasts in the church, with records of sermons dating back to the 4th century. Aside from the blessing of candles—and the widespread and abundant use of candles, too—Candlemas brings an array of delicious foods and vibrant customs!

In countries across Europe, sweet and savory crepes are made; in Mexico, piles of tamales are served, often at a party thrown by the person who found the baby Jesus trinket in an Epiphany King Cake. French tradition has it that successfully flipping a coin while making pancakes will surely bring good luck, and Candlemas Bells—early-blooming white flowers, also known as snowdrops—are believed to purify any home they are brought into today.

GROUNDHOG DAY: SEASONAL PREDICTIONS AND GOOD OL’ PHIL

On February 2, many of us ask: Will the groundhog see his shadow?

What started as an ancient pagan festival’s legends on woodland animals “testing the weather” has slowly morphed into a national phenomenon in the United States. Groundhog Day, spurred by German immigrants of the 18th and 19th centuries who brought groundhog traditions with them to America, gave birth to “Punxsutawney Phil” and the array of groundhog-related events that (typically) fill lodges and streets in Pennsylvania in the first days of February each year.

IMBOLC: SPRING AND WOODLAND ANIMALS

Wiccans and Pagans in the Northern Hemisphere usher in February with the centuries-old Gaelic festival of Imbolc, marking the beginning of spring and the halfway point between the winter solstice and spring equinox. (Note: In the Southern Hemisphere, Lughnassadh is celebrated.) Corn dollies are made by young Pagans, while adults twist Brighid crosses. After dark, candles are lit to welcome the rebirth of the sun.

Did you know? The Irish Imbolc translates from the Old Irish imbolg, or “in the belly”—a tribute to the early spring pregnancies of ewes. As lactation begins, an array of dairy foods eaten on this day symbolizes new beginnings.

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Twelfth Night, Epiphany & Theophany: Closing Christmas, celebrating the Magi

“We three kings of Orient are; bearing gifts we traverse afar; field and fountain, moor and mountain; following yonder star.”
-“We Three Kings,” written by John Henry Hopkins Jr., 1857
Twelfth Night procession and festivities

Twelfth Night festivities near London, England. Photo copyright Stephen Craven, courtesy of Geograph.org and licensed for reuse

TUESDAY, JANUARY 5 and WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 6: Mayhem and jolliness rule on Twelfth Night, the final event of the 12 days of Christmas and the eve of Epiphany. On the following day, January 6, Epiphany is celebrated in in Western Christianity, thus officially ending the Christmas season in the church; this feast is known as Theophany (or Divine Manifestation) in Eastern Christianity.

Did you know? These festivals have been evolving for many centuries. Epiphany and Theophany customs in some countries actually mingle Eastern and Western Christian traditions—look to Eastern Europe for examples. Also, many Christians in the U.S. marked Epiphany on Sunday January 3 this year. In fact, the official U.S. Roman Catholic calendar considers all of this week to be an extension of “Christmas week,” so the first week of the next Christian season (Ordinary Time) does not begin until January 11, 2021. 

TWELFTH NIGHT: TRADITIONS AND (VIRTUAL) JOVIALITY

Three kings, magi, night

Image courtesy of Pixabay

In the Christian church, Twelfth Night is Epiphany Eve, and the faithful prepare for the feast celebrating the visitation of the Magi. In some Catholic countries, children anticipate small gifts and candies to be left on the evening of January 5, as the Magi “pass by” on their way to Bethlehem. Songs such as “We Three Kings of Orient Are” and “I Saw Three Ships” pay homage to the Magi and, respectively, to their relics being transported to Cologne, aboard three ships.

NEWS 2021: As with many holidays this year, virtual celebrations are taking the place of many in-person festivities for Twelfth Night 2021. From New York, reenactors present Salutations of the Season, an online event (read more here); similarly, an annual Twelfth Night event in Pennsylvania will be moving online this year. From the Cathedral of the Incarnation, the Cathedral Choirs will perform on January 3, with their annual program, “Twelfth Night and the Procession of Three Kings” (get the Zoom link on the cathedral’s website).

Did you know? In Colonial America, the Christmas wreath was left on the door until the end of the Twelve Days of Christmas, at which time any edible portions were consumed. In a similar manner, any fruits on Christmas trees were consumed on Twelfth Night.

EPIPHANY AND THEOPHANY: REVELATION

ON EPIPHANY, Christians worldwide rejoice in the manifestation of Jesus, revealed as God the Son, on the Feast of Epiphany (in Greek, Theophany). Literally “striking appearance,” or “vision of God,” Epiphany and Theophany have been central to both Eastern and Western Christian calendars for centuries. Through Advent, the Western Christian church anticipated the coming of Jesus—and, of course, Mary and Joseph were the earliest witnesses—but Christian tradition holds that one key moment in this revelation was the arrival of the Magi. With the arrival of representatives of other nations came the true unveiling of God’s purpose took place.

ON THEOPHANY, Eastern Orthodox Christians celebrate Jesus’s manifestation as the Son of God, although Eastern tradition focuses on his baptism in the Jordan River as the key moment of revelation.

CUSTOMS AND VISITING MAGI

Epiphany Kings Day cake

A traditional galette de rois (cake of the kings). Photo courtesy of PxHere

Epiphany customs in some regions of the world rival those of Christmas, and in most years, festivities include parades, parties, cakes and “visiting” Magi. On the morning of Epiphany in Poland, some children dress in traditional clothing, carols are sung and homes are blessed; in Argentina, many children awake to find gifts left by the “passing” Magi.

In Eastern Orthodox Christian communities, Epiphany (called Theophany) commemorates the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River; because all three branches of the Holy Trinity were present at Jesus’ baptism, according to church teaching, this event marks the moment at which Jesus was fully recognized as the Son of God.

RECIPES & MORE

Whether baking a Spanish roscon de reyes (kings’ ring) or French galette de rois (cake of the kings), have some Twelfth Night fun!

Sip lamb’s wool (a type of wassail) and bite into a king cake, two customary dishes served on Twelfth Night. Check out recipes at Fish Eaters.

An English Twelfth Night cake recipe is courtesy of the New York Times.

Twelfth Night turkey with wild rice stuffing and ale reduction is a recipe provided by Food Network.

In some countries, Twelfth Night and Epiphany mark the start of Carnival season, which lasts through Fat Tuesday, or Mardi Gras.

Christmas: Drive-in church services, virtual gatherings celebrate Nativity in a unique year

“Someday soon we all will be together, if the fates allow. Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow, and have yourself a merry little Christmas now.”

-“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” 1944

Candle gift tree Christmas

Photo courtesy of StockSnap

FRIDAY, DECEMBER 25: Christmas 2020 will look different for billions across the globe, as many are separated from family, friends and traditions due to the coronavirus pandemic. Still, we heartily say, in spite of the hardships and challenges: Merry Christmas!

In 1944, Judy Garland was the first to sing the famous ballad “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” from the cinematic screen, in “Meet Me in St. Louis.” Perhaps in no year since that time—until this year—have the lyrics been so appropriate, again. Though many will be unable to visit family and friends for Christmas this year, virtual gatherings will be conducted in the hopes that, next year, “we all will be together.” (USA Today has a column on this subject.)

2020 NEWS: Since traveling to see family members is incredibly risky this year, experts say—only one state in the continental U.S. remains out of the “high risk” category for Covid-19 (and, Forbes lists the 10 highest-risk states)—many will be gathering virtually for Christmas and finding unique ways to share experiences. News articles worldwide are reporting on plans to drop off favorite dishes, gifts—even complete recipe ingredients—on the doorsteps of family members and friends. In this article from The Guardian, one family hopes to still enjoy Christmas dinner together, but in the outdoor garden (despite the weather); another woman plans to virtually play board games with faraway family members on Christmas Day.

To accommodate churchgoers on Christmas Day, many houses of worship are offering virtual, drive-in or outdoor Masses. In addition, Pope Francis has, by decree, issued permission for priests to say four Masses on Christmas Day in 2020.

CHRISTMAS: A MAJOR HOLIDAY FOR 2 BILLION CHRISTIANS

It’s Christmas Day for the majority of the world’s 2 billion Christians, as the birth of Jesus is celebrated in great rejoicing. While the birth year of Jesus is only speculated, December 25 is embraced by a multitude of Christians worldwide as the day Mary and Joseph welcomed their newborn son in a manger. With the celebration of Jesus’s birth, the season of Advent closes for Western Christians; the Nativity Fast ends for Eastern Christians; and the 12 days of Christmastide begin. In many countries, Christmas Day is a public holiday.

Note: Some Eastern Christians mark Christmas according to the Julian calendar, which pushes many Russian, Ukrainian and Serbian churches to a January 7 celebration of Nativity (Christmas).

Many Christians believe the birth of Jesus to Mary fulfills an ancient Messianic prophesy. Two canonical gospels record Jesus as having been born to Mary and her husband, Joseph, in the city of Bethlehem. Tradition tells that the birth took place in a stable, because “there was no room for them in the inn.” Nearby shepherds, told of the birth by angels, came to see the baby; magi came later, bearing gifts for the baby Jesus. The Star of Bethlehem is believed to have led the magi to Jesus, and the visit of the magi is celebrated as Epiphany, on January 6.

Nativity scene Christmas

Photo courtesy of SnappyGoat.com

THE NATIVITY: A HISTORY

From the formative years of the church’s celebrations to the Nativity noted today, a multitude of customs have become associated with Christmas: displaying manger scenes, caroling, sending greetings and hanging stockings by a fireplace, to name just a few. Christian saints have been responsible for creating some of the customs—namely, St. Francis of Assisi for the nativity scene, and St. Nicholas for stockings and candy canes—while others are secular or even pre-Christian.

The Chronography of 354 AD is the oldest surviving reference to a Roman celebration for the birth of Jesus on December 25; in the East, the birth of Jesus was already observed with the Epiphany, on January 6. In the Early Middle Ages, Christmas Day was outshone by Epiphany, though by the later medieval period, Christmas-related holidays were starting to become more popular.

Christmas encountered turbulence through the 17th and 18th centuries, but by the 19th century, writers such as Charles Dickens were creating the “heartfelt goodwill” that morphed Christmas into a more secular holiday based on goodwill, family and jollity. For billions around the globe, Christmas today includes cookies, gift giving, shared feasts, cherished stories and songs and festive decorations.

EASTERN CUSTOMS: RUSSIA TO BETHLEHEM

Approximately half of Eastern Orthodox churches celebrate Christmas with Western Christians on December 25. That list includes the Orthodox churches in Bulgaria, Greece, Romania, Antioch, Constantinople, Alexandria, Albania, Cyprus and Finland—as well as the Orthodox Church in America.

For a variety of traditional reasons, Orthodox churches in Russia, Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova, Serbia, Armenia, Egypt and Ethiopia hold their Nativity (Christmas) observance in January. This variance primarily involves the older Julian calendar, which pushes Christmas to January 7, but further wrinkles in the tradition affect some Armenians, Copts and Ethiopians. The very last Eastern Orthodox Christmas will be celebrated by the Armenians living in Jerusalem, who travel to Bethlehem for an hours-long, centuries-old liturgy in the Church of the Nativity that takes place as late as January 18 or 19.

FOOD & RECIPES

In search of Christmas recipes? Look no further!

From Martha Stewart, try baking something beautiful.

From Food Network, find an array of professional recipes.

From AllRecipes, gather favored suggestions for dinner, breakfast and dessert.

From Food & Wine, cook up something fancy or unique.