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.

Nativity Fast: Eastern Orthodox Christians begin preparations for Divine Infant

nativity fast orthodox

An Eastern Orthodox Christian depiction of the Nativity. Photo courtesy of Pxfuel

SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 15—or SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 28: The American Thanksgiving may not have arrived yet, but millions of Orthodox Christians around the world are turning toward the season of Jesus’s birth—which they refer to formally as the Nativity—with, today, the start of the Nativity Fast. For many centuries, Eastern Christians have prepared for the Nativity with a 40-day Nativity Fast.

Note: The variance between starting on (what today is) November 15 and 28 stems from traditional methods of keeping the calendar through many centuries. Some Orthodox church headquarters in the U.S. now list both dates on their websites, because parish leaders know that some families who attend prefer to follow one calendar, while others may follow calendars that match relatives in their countries of origin.

Two periods comprise the Nativity Fast (the dates of which are stated, here, per the Gregorian calendar): Nov. 15-Dec. 19, and Dec. 20-24. December 20 launches the Forefeast of the Nativity, with chanting of Nativity hymns each day through Dec. 24 (Paramony). On Paramony—called Christmas Eve in the Western Christian church—no solid food is consumed until the first star is observed in the evening sky; afterward, the fast is joyously broken. Many then head to the traditional All-Night Vigil, while others attend the Divine Liturgy for the Nativity of Christ on Christmas morning.

Traditional Orthodox fasting is no simple task: It means giving up meat and dairy, in addition to fish, wine and oil (fish, wine and oil are, however, permitted on specific days). Yet Orthodox teaching instructs that fasting be undertaken with gladness and in a sense of earnest anticipation—in the promise that these devout preparations will deepen reflections on the moment when God became human. Fasting for Orthodox Christians includes abstinence from foods, negative emotions and greed. Prayer and almsgiving complement the fasting period.

THE PURPOSE OF FASTING: A SYNOPSIS

orthodox prayer scene

Photo courtesy of Needpix

What is the purpose of fasting, according to the Eastern Orthodox Christian church? Following is pastoral advice from the website of the Antiochian Orthodox archdiocese for America:

The purpose of fasting is to focus on the things that are above, the Kingdom of God. It is a means of putting on virtue in reality, here and now. Through it we are freed from dependence on worldly things. We fast faithfully and in secret, not judging others, and not holding ourselves up as an example. 

Fasting in itself is not a means of pleasing God. Fasting is not a punishment for our sins. Nor is fasting a means of suffering and pain to be undertaken as some kind of atonement. Christ already redeemed us on His Cross. Salvation is a gift from God that is not bought by our hunger or thirst.

We fast to be delivered from carnal passions so that God’s gift of Salvation may bear fruit in us. We fast and turn our eyes toward God in His Holy Church. Fasting and prayer go together. Fasting is not irrelevant. Fasting is not obsolete, and it is not something for someone else. Fasting is from God, for us, right here and right now. 

NATIVITY FAST, PROPHETS AND THE AFTERFEAST

Throughout the Nativity Fast, several key figures are highlighted with feast days—in particular, the prophets who Eastern Christians believe laid the groundwork for the Incarnation: Obadiah, Nahum, Habbakuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Daniel and the Three Holy Youths. Sundays leading up to Nativity also bring attention to ancestors of the church and righteous men and women who pleased God.

On December 25 (or January 7), the Feast of the Nativity, fasting is forbidden; a fast-free period, or Afterfeast, lasts through January 4—or later, depending on one’s calendar.

Nativity Fast: Preparations begin for Orthodox Christians

Crowd standing, of men, women and children, candles in front

An Orthodox Christian Christmas (Nativity) service in Russia. Photo courtesy of President of Russia

FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 15—or THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 28: The season of preparation for Christ’s birth begins for Orthodox Christians with a 40-day period of abstinence known as the Nativity Fast.

Usually, our ReadTheSpirit magazine column about this centuries-old practice focuses on the earlier start of the fasting period, which is most common in the U.S. Here is how the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America explains this period of self-denial and deepening spiritual reflection:

The Nativity Fast is one of four main fast periods throughout the ecclesiastical year. Beginning on November 15 and concluding on December 24, the Nativity Fast gives individuals the opportunity to prepare for the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord and Savior  on December 25. By abstaining from certain food and drink—particularly from meat, fish, dairy products, olive oil, and wine—as well as focusing more deeply on prayer and almsgiving, we can find that the primary aim of fasting is to make us conscious of our dependence upon God.

However, in this 2019 holiday column we are aware of almost daily newspaper headlines about Ukraine and Russia—so we are including their later starting date, as well. That variance between starting on what today is November 15 and 28 stems from traditional methods of keeping the calendar through many centuries. Some Orthodox church headquarters in the U.S. now list both dates on their websites, because parish leaders know that some families who attend prefer to follow one calendar—while others may follow calendars that match relatives in their countries of origin.

One Russian Orthodox church on the West Coast, for example, has this note on its website’s calendar: “During this fast, the general rule is that from Nov. 15/Nov. 28—and up until the Feast of Nativity (Christmas)—no meat, meat-products, dairy, dairy-products or egg and egg-products are eaten. Children under 7, lactating and pregnant women are exempt.” Both dates are offered because it’s clear to the pastor that Orthodox Christians from other backgrounds like to attend liturgies at that church.

Many American-based Orthodox clergy and lay people have to navigate complex cultural expectations.

Making American Exceptions and Adaptations

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

One of the most popular writers about American Orthodox faith and culture is theologian and educator Federica Matthewes-Green—a famous convert to Orthodoxy in the early 1990s. Over the past two decades, she has appeared on national panels and in public TV documentaries as an expert on the American experience of Orthodoxy. Among her most popular introductions to the Orthodox church is her 1997 memoir, Facing East—A Pilgrim’s Journey into the Mysteries of Orthodoxy

In that book, she writes:

Last Saturday, when I went out with a friend for lunch, I mentioned that we were in the Nativity fast. When she asked what that meant, I replied that we go without meat from November 15 to Christmas, 40 days. Our parish doesn’t observe a stringent fast now like we do before Pascha (Easter), though some Orthodox do. I said, “Of course, we make an exception on Thanksgiving. We eat turkey.”

“Then what?” she asked. “Do you have to feel guilty about it and go to confession?”

“No,” I said, “American Orthodox generally make an exception and feast on Thanksgiving. Because it’s a local custom.” A minute later I realize how funny this sounds In Orthodoxy, the vast United States of America from sea to shining sea is “local.”

‘We Fast Faithfully and in Secret’

Despite that practical advice from her parish—most official Orthodox websites, even in the U.S., don’t mention a Thanksgiving adaptation. What they offer is pastoral advice about the contemporary spiritual value of fasting—and a warning not to judge others for how they choose to follow this call to self denial. Pastors tend to warn against pointing fingers at others whose fasting practice may not be as strict.

Here’s an example from the website of the Antiochian Orthodox archdiocese for America. The archdiocesan website first offers a detailed fasting chart, then adds this pastoral advice:

The purpose of fasting is to focus on the things that are above, the Kingdom of God. It is a means of putting on virtue in reality, here and now. Through it we are freed from dependence on worldly things. We fast faithfully and in secret, not judging others, and not holding ourselves up as an example. 

Fasting in itself is not a means of pleasing God. Fasting is not a punishment for our sins. Nor is fasting a means of suffering and pain to be undertaken as some kind of atonement. Christ already redeemed us on His Cross. Salvation is a gift from God that is not bought by our hunger or thirst.

We fast to be delivered from carnal passions so that God’s gift of Salvation may bear fruit in us. We fast and turn our eyes toward God in His Holy Church. Fasting and prayer go together. Fasting is not irrelevant. Fasting is not obsolete, and it is not something for someone else. Fasting is from God, for us, right here and right now. 

NATIVITY FAST: PROPHETS & PARAMONY

Woman with baby, surrounded by other figures, in iconic ilustration

An Eastern Orthodox Christian depiction of the Nativity. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Throughout the Nativity Fast, several key figures are highlighted with feast days—in particular, the prophets who Eastern Christians believe laid the groundwork for the Incarnation: Obadiah, Nahum, Habbakuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Daniel and the Three Holy Youths. Sundays leading up to Nativity also bring attention to ancestors of the Church and righteous men and women who pleased God.

The Forefeast of the Nativity begins December 20 (or later, depending on one’s calendar), with the chanting of Nativity hymns every day until the Eve of the Nativity—or, Paramony. On Paramony—called Christmas Eve in the Western Christian Church—no solid food is partaken until the first star is seen in the evening sky. The fast is joyously broken, and while many head to the traditional All-Night Vigil, others attend the Divine Liturgy for the Nativity of Christ on Christmas morning.

On December 25, the Feast of the Nativity, fasting is forbidden; a fast-free period, or Afterfeast, lasts through January 4—or later, depending on one’s calendar.

Pascha: Eastern Orthodox Christians revel in the Resurrection

Priests in vestments with children

A Pascha party in Amsterdam, 2009. Photo by Jim Forest, courtesy of Flickr

SUNDAY, APRIL 12: The Great and Holy Feast of Pascha brings the ultimate joy of the Resurrection of Christ to the Eastern Orthodox Christian Church, in the most significant day of the year. From an Orthodox perspective: It is the feast of feasts; it is the fundamental truth of the Christian faith; it is Christ’s victory over death.

For Orthodox Christians following the Julian calendar, today’s Pascha confirms the truth of Christ’s teachings. The Resurrection, it is believed, proclaims God’s plan, the divination of man and the order of the universe.

PASCHA: AN ODE TO JOY

Before midnight on Saturday, the Odes of Lamentation are repeated; a celebrant approaches a temporary tomb, and the winding-sheet is removed from it. The Orthros of Resurrection begins in darkness. Hymns are sung and, in most churches, the priest leads congregation members outside, where the Gospel is read. (Find details at Orthodox Church in America.) Before reentering the church, the priest announces the resurrection of Christ. When the priest begins the hymn of Resurrection, the Easter service takes on a full festal tone. Back inside, the Easter Matins service is sung in its entirety.

The Pascha icon shines at the center of the church—the image of Christ destroying the gates of hell and freeing Adam and Eve from the captivity of death. Congregants proclaim: “Christ is risen!” As the Easter Matins comes to a close, the Easter Hours are sung, followed by the proclamation of the Paschal Sermon of St. John Chrysostom. (Learn more from the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.) The sermon invites everyone, young and old, to forget their sins and to join in the feast of the resurrection of Christ.

PASCHA: A FORM OF ‘PASSOVER’

While the Western term for the Resurrection celebration, Easter, is more widely accepted in the West, Eastern Orthodox Christians often point out that the term Pascha more accurately describes the events of Christ’s life, death and rising. While Easter is most likely derived from Ostara, an ancient Pagan springtime festival, Pascha is translated from Greek as “Passover.” Pascha describes the Jewish festival of Passover, as well as Christ as the paschal lamb.

Tomorrow, the Monday following Pascha, is known as Bright Monday, and the remainder of the week is Bright Week. Throughout Bright Week, services are similar to those of Pascha.

Wondering what Pascha is like in Greece? Read the colorful, vibrant details of a childhood in Lefkada, as penned by a writer for the Huffington Post.

Nativity Fast: Eastern Christians prepare for birth of Jesus Christ

Cathedral building of light browns and beige colors, ornate with dome tops and Orthodox crosses, on sunny day

Nativity of Christ (Orthodox) Cathedral in Riga, Latvia. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 15: Preparations for Jesus’s birth begin in the Orthodox Christian Church as adherents begin the 40-day Nativity Fast.

The faithful are supposed to undertake this challenging tradition with joy and in a spirit of earnest anticipation. By fasting, Orthodox Christians embrace their own humanity and, at the same time, the moment at which God became human, according to Orthodox teaching.

The Nativity Fast is divided into two periods: November 15-December 19, and December 20-24. Both fasting periods follow the traditional fasting discipline (without meat, dairy, fish, wine or oil), but each also allows for fish, wine and oil on specific days. Several other holidays will fall within the Nativity Fast, such as St. Andrew’s Day, St. Nicholas Day, the Sunday of the Forefathers and the Sunday of the Fathers. (Wikipedia has details.)

Orthodox theology holds that bodily fasting ultimately influences the soul. During the Nativity Fast, the faithful turn away from worldly desires and toward God. The fasting includes not only bodily abstinence, but also fasting from negative emotions, hatred and greed. Prayer and almsgiving are a major part of the spiritual discipline. (Learn more from Orthodox Church in America.)

Note: The Nativity Fast is observed November 15-December 24 in the Gregorian calendar and the Revised Julian calendar. Followers of the Julian calendar, which is currently 13 days behind the Gregorian, will begin the fast on November 28 of the Gregorian calendar.

Orthodox Sunday: Eastern Christians mark anniversary during Lent

Interior of a small church with painted icons on the walls

Painted icons inside the Antiochian Orthodox Mission in Homer, Alaska. Photo by Daniel Hoherd, courtesy of Flickr

SUNDAY, MARCH 9: Increasing numbers of Orthodox Christians are gathering on this, the first Sunday of Lent, to mark the Feast of the Triumph of Orthodoxy. Each Sunday during Lent is assigned a specific theme, but this Sunday’s historical significance looms large: celebrating the 787 CE decision of the Seventh Ecumenical Council to uphold the use of holy icons in Orthodox worship (and, of course, the official implementation of the icons back into the Church in 842 CE).

The faithful believe that icons have a sacramental meaning, bringing the holy person depicted into the presence of the believer. Orthodox churches worldwide are decorated with ornately painted icons, and an icon screen separates the sanctuary from the nave of the church. Orthodox homes often have an icon corner, where household members like to pray.

The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America has posted a column about the observance, including this brief explanation of icons: “Icons are venerated by burning lamps and candles in front of them, by the use of incense and by kissing. But there is a clear doctrinal distinction between the veneration paid to icons and the worship due to God.”

That is an important distinction made more than 1,000 years ago at the 8th Century Seventh Ecumenical Council (also known as the Second Council of Nicaea). Wikipedia has an English translation from the Council’s conclusion on icons: “As the sacred and life-giving cross is everywhere set up as a symbol, so also should the images of Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, the holy angels, as well as those of the saints and other pious and holy men be embodied in the manufacture of sacred vessels, tapestries, vestments, etc., and exhibited on the walls of churches, in the homes, and in all conspicuous places, by the roadside and everywhere, to be revered by all who might see them. For the more they are contemplated, the more they move to fervent memory of their prototypes. Therefore, it is proper to accord to them a fervent and reverent adoration, not, however, the veritable worship which, according to our faith, belongs to the Divine Being alone.”

THE SOCHI OLYMPICS
AND FAITH SPIKING IN RUSSIA

All eyes were on Russian athletes during the Sochi Winter Olympic Games, and increasing numbers of Russian athletes were spotted gesturing the Sign of the Cross. That was a sign of the growing influence of the Orthodox Church in Russia.

Pew’s Religion & Public Life Project reports that in 1991, only 31 percent of Russians over the age of 16 identified themselves as Orthodox Christians—but, by 2008, 72 percent of men and women were calling themselves Orthodox. In the same period, the number of adults claiming a belief in God increased from 38 percent to 56 percent. (The Huffington Post and Christianity Today reported.)

Nativity of the Virgin, Birthday of the Theotokos: Christians honor Mary

Depiction on wood of woman in bed holding baby, women gathered around to assist the new mother, pouring water and folding items

The Birth of Mary, artwork circa 1470. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 8: From East to West, most of the world’s Christians wish “happy birthday” to the person whom Catholic and Othodox Christians believe links the divine to humanity: today is the Nativity of the Theotokos, or the Birthday of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

One of the Twelve Great Feasts of the Eastern Orthodox Church and a liturgical feast in the Roman Catholic calendar of saints, the Nativity of Mary has been celebrated from the earliest centuries of Christianity. Unlike most saints’ days in the Western Christian Church, only three figures are commemorated on the day of their birth, thereby indicating their pivotal role in salvation: Jesus, John the Baptist and Mary.

THE STORY OF MARY’S LIFE: FROM UNKNOWN TO RENOWNED

As this traditional Christian story goes: Mary’s life began piously in Galilee, Nazareth, as a baby born to elderly and previously barren parents. Though they remained faithful to God, Joachim and Anna were without children for many years—a characteristic regarded, at the time, as a punishment for sin. One fateful day, when Joachim had traveled to the temple to make an offering, he was chastised by the High Priest for being childless; his offering was turned away. The distraught husband and wife prayed to God, and the Archangel Gabriel appeared to them, promising a child whose name would be known throughout the world. In nine months, Anna bore a child.

No record of Mary’s birth or childhood exists in the Gospels, but is found in later Christian works. Because these details are not in the New Testament, most Protestants do not observe the holiday. In fact, Eastern and Western Christians also diverge in their understanding of Mary’s birth. For Catholics, Mary’s birth is connected with the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, a dogma formally established by the Vatican in 1854. Eastern Christians believe that while Mary wasn’t without original sin, she was spared actual sin by God’s grace.

Note: For those following the Julian Calendar, this feast day falls on September 21 of the Gregorian Calendar.

Closeup of clump of green and purple grapes hanging from vine

In France, winegrowers bring their best grapes to church for a blessing on the Nativity of Mary. Photo courtesy of Flickr

OUR LADY OF THE GRAPE HARVEST
& OTHER IDEAS FOR CELEBRATION

In several regions of the world, Mary’s Nativity is marked with seasonal customs and the start of the Indian summer, or “after-summer.” The winegrowers of France regard today as the Our Lady of Grape Harvest, bringing their best crop to the local church to be blessed; seeds for winter crop are blessed in many churches across Europe; in the Alps, cattle and sheep are herded in grand procession from their summer pastures down to the valleys and stables, where they will reside for the cold season. (Wikipedia has more.) In some areas of Austria, milk from these cattle and sheep is given to the poor, in honor of the Virgin Mary.

Some Catholic groups, including Women for Faith and Family, suggest ways that families can celebrate today:

  • Bake Mary a birthday cake, with white and blue icing to symbolize her purity and fidelity. Place a small figure of the Virgin Mary in the center of the cake.
  • Eat foods containing blueberries or anything else blue, as blue is the common Marian color.
  • Decorate a Marian altar at home.
  • Learn and sing hymns to Mary, such as the Immaculate Mary and ‘Hail Holy Queen.’

PLANS FOR A MOVIE? Hollywood interest in biblical stories is rising, experts report. Christian Science Monitor has the story. A new movie about Mary’s early life reportedly is in production for 2014 release, called Mary, Mother of Christ. Israeli-born Odeya Rush is slated to star as Mary. Other stars booked for the production include Peter O’Toole and Ben Kingsley.