WEDNESDAY, NOVEMBER 15: The American Thanksgiving may still be around the corner, but millions of Orthodox Christians across the globe are turning toward the season of Jesus’s birth—which they refer to 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. Traditionally, two periods comprise the Nativity Fast: Nov. 15-Dec. 19, and Dec. 20-24. (Note: The Nativity Fast is observed November 15-December 24 in the Gregorian calendar. Some Orthodox follow other traditional calendars, such as the Julian calendar.)
In the Gregorian calendar, 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.
Did you know? The Nativity Fast thematically focuses on glorification of the Incarnation of God; the Western Advent focuses on the two comings (or advents) of Jesus.
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.
You may ask: Are American Orthodox Christians allowed to break the Nativity Fast for Thanksgiving? In short: It depends. Under the direction of Archbishop Iakovos, primate of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America from 1959-1996, a special dispensation was issued that permitted the faithful to break fast in order to celebrate Thanksgiving. On a local level, most clergy give dispensation for Thanksgiving, though there are some that do not. For those Orthodox Christians following the Julian calendar, the Nativity Fast starts after the American Thanksgiving.
THE PURPOSE OF FASTING: A SYNOPSIS
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.
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, in the Julian calendar) it is the Feast of the Nativity. On this day fasting is forbidden, and a fast-free period—or Afterfeast—lasts through January 4 (or later, depending on one’s calendar).