MONDAY, NOVEMBER 15: With the Christmas season fast approaching, Orthodox Christians will begin their own preparation for Christ’s birth today: Nov. 15 begins the Nativity fast. For Orthodox Christians, today begins the joyous 40-day fast that precedes the Great Feast of the Nativity. By focusing less on food and more on others, Orthodox Christians truly get into the “Christmas spirit!” Traditionally, not only do the faithful focus on Jesus’ birth but they also think more about giving to charity and helping those less fortunate.
Orthodox Christians also expend energy fasting from sin, while fasting from food. (Read one perspective on the traditional fast at Orthodox Church in America.)
Fasting is a spiritual discpline that is central to the Orthodox year, especially before Christmas and Easter. These fasts are far stricter than in most other branches of Christianity, reflecting many centuries of family life especially in rural areas around the world. While giving up meat, dairy, wine and oil may sound impossibly strict, many Orthodox countries have tasty, healthy dishes served primarily during the fasting seasons. (See OrthodoxWiki for more fasting details. Then, if you’re more concerned about recipes, check out this page on fasting recipes, assembled by St. George Greek Orthodox Church in South Carolina.)
The Nativity fast is essentially divided into two portions: the first portion, observed Nov. 15-Dec. 19, is when devotees fast from meat, dairy, fish, wine and oil but are given designated days “off”: the second portion, observed Dec. 20-24, is when devotees observe the fast strictly. (The Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America offers a detailed chart of fast days.)
Several feasts fall within the Nativity fast. These days “off” include St. Andrew’s Day, St. Nicholas Day, the Sunday of the Forefathers and the Sunday of the Fathers.