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.

Christmas, Nativity: Christians across the globe rejoice in Christ’s birth

Altar of a church decorated for Christmas

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 25: Sing for joy and ring the bells—it’s Christmas! The Old English Christ’s Mass celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ for Christians worldwide, hailing from snow-covered mountains to sandy beaches, crowded cities to rural fields—and everywhere in between.

Pew Research tells us that, even with declines in religious affiliation in the U.S., half of all Americans say they attend church on Christmas Eve.

Central to the liturgical year, Christmas closes Advent and begins the Twelve Days of Christmastide. Though the exact year of Jesus’ birth can’t be placed, Christian families re-read two Gospels that describe a lowly manger, visiting shepherds, magi and, of course, that mysterious guiding star (now believed to have been a rare alignment of planets). While previously a time of year when winter Solstice was celebrated in the Roman empire, Christians transformed this darkest period of the year and say that Jesus’ coming fulfills ancient prophesy that a “Sun of righteousness” would come, and that his (red) blood and (green) eternal life provide hope to the whole world. Even St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican boasts an impressive mosaic of Christo Sole, Christ the Sun, in its pre-4th-century necropolis.

Earliest evidence of a Christmas celebration centered around Jesus dates to 354 CE, when events took place in Rome (note that the birth of Christ was already being observed at this time by Eastern Christians, on Epiphany). The first Christmas hymns emerged in 4th century Rome, but the Epiphany holiday continued to dominate Christmas through the Middle Ages. During the medieval period, Christmas grew in popularity over Epiphany. During this time, the 40 days prior to Christmas became known as the “forty days of St. Martin”—a tradition that evolved into Advent.

CHRISTMAS DIY: DECORATIONS, RECIPES & PARTY TIPS

Whether your halls are decked to the hilt or boasting a sparse sprig of holly, have no fear—there’s still time to bring cheer to your home! We’ve searched the web and spotted these online gems that are worth a click and a look …

Martha Stewart offers a selection of handmade gift ideas, ornament inspirations and more. Don’t leave out the kids—their crafts and printables are at Kaboose. After the stockings and wreaths are hung, it’s time to focus on the Christmas meal—an all-important aspect to Christmas in many cultures. In areas of Italy, 12 kinds of fish are served on Christmas Eve (get Italian Christmas recipes here), while in England, fare often includes goose, gravy, potatoes, bread and cider. Whether Midnight Mass interrupts your menu or not, don’t forget dessert—American cookies, traditional pudding, fruit cakes and mince pies. (Taste of Home and AllRecipes offer everything from appetizer to dessert recipes.)

Cooking for guests with special requests? Find a gluten-free menu and a vegetarian menu from Huffington Post. In Malta, a chocolate and chestnut beverage is served after the 12 a.m. Christmas services. Chocolate lovers can find more festive food ideas at Hersheys.com.

DID YOU KNOW? (PARTY ICEBREAKERS)

Now, for some extra fun: Are you looking to strike up a conversation with a stranger—or that family member you only see once a year? Try tossing out a few of these interesting tidbits during your next gathering:

Sancte Claus was retroactively named the patron saint of Nieuw Amsterdam (the Dutch name for New York City) in 1809

• President Ulysses S. Grant declared Christmas a federal holiday in the United States in 1870. Five years later, the first American Christmas card was produced

• Charles Dickens sought to recreate Christmas as a family centered holiday of generosity and secularity. Unlike modern-day Europe and U.S., workers in Dickens’ day did not get “days off” in their work schedules. In addition to campaigning for a full-day December 25 holiday in A Christmas Carol, Dickens was one of the leading British activists for Sunday-holiday laws in the UK that would give workers a weekly sabbath off work. So, there was a major political campaign behind Dickens’ fanciful tales.

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.

Merry Christmas! Billions of Christians worldwide celebrate Jesus’s birth

Dimly lit church with evergreens and red ribbon decoration pew

Photo courtesy of Max Pixel

MONDAY, DECEMBER 25: Merry Christmas!

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.

CHRISTMAS: A HISTORY

Baby lit adults admiring in dark

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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: JULIAN 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

From Martha Stewart, try baking something beautiful.

From Rachael Ray or 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.

 

Posadas Navidenas: Colorful processions recall an ancient journey

A Las Posadas procession. Photo by Anza Trail NPS, courtesy of Flickr

SATURDAY, DECEMBER 16: The Hispanic countdown to Christmas officially begins tonight with Posadas Navidenas across Mexico, in Guatemala and in regions of the United States. Tantalizing dishes, merry carols and the story of the nativity has been bringing together communities in Mexico for more than 400 years in a beloved tradition that lasts nine nights and ends on Dec. 24. Each night of Las Posadas, a small, candlelit procession travels through a neighborhood, its participants dressed like Mary, Joseph, angels and shepherds, reenacting the search for a safe place to welcome the infant Jesus. Often, musicians follow the group, as do accompanying members of the community.

Did you know? As a learning resource, NBC News suggests Posadas Navidenas as one of five Latino holiday traditions to share with children.

Spanish for “lodging” or “accommodation,” Posada recalls the difficulty Mary and Joseph encountered on their journey. Posada describes the events of Las Posadas: as the procession stops at designated houses and asks permission to stay, it is prearranged that all homeowners turn away the visitors until the host family is reached. At the home of the host family (or, in some regions, a church), the visitors are welcomed inside, and all present kneel before a nativity. Following prayers, tamales and ponche navideno are served, washed down with rompope, a Mexican drink with a taste similar to eggnog. Children may hit a five- or seven-pointed piñata, often filled with dried fruits, sugar sticks, candies and nuts. Often, Christmas carols are also sung by all. (Learn traditional carols and more at The Other Side of the Tortilla.)

FROM AN AZTEC WINTER CELEBRATION TO A NEIGHBORHOOD EVENT

Roots of the nine-day Las Posadas likely lie in the Aztec winter celebration of the sun god, which took place over nine nights; when the native peoples of Mexico were converting to Catholicism, church leaders encouraged nine nights of devotion to the parents of Jesus—focusing each evening on a month of Mary’s pregnancy.

Revelries outside of Mexico can vary: in the Philippines, Posadas highlights a Panunuluyan pageant, a type of play portraying the story of Mary and Joseph and recited in a local language. In Nicaragua, the event lasts only one day. In the United States, several regions hold some type of Las Posadas celebration, most often with carols, reenactments and plenty of Mexican food.

DIY: RECIPES & MAKING A PINATA

Shake off the winter chill by adopting a Las Posadas tradition in your neighborhood, and invite friends over for a traditional meal of vegetable tamale pie, Tijuana chicken and warm apple empanadas. (Recipes can be found at Cinnamon Hearts.)

Craft a simple piñata with help from OneCharmingParty.

For recipes for tamales, rompope and more, check out an article from the Washington Postthis Pinterest page and Lowes.com.

 

Nativity Fast: Orthodox Christians begin joyous fasting period for Jesus’s birth

Candles lit interior of Orthodox Christian church

Photo by Mr.TinDC, courtesy of Flickr

Nativity Orthodox iconWEDNESDAY, NOVEMBER 15: Even before the American Thanksgiving, millions of Orthodox Christians around the world are looking toward Jesus’s birth, which they refer to formally as the Nativity. Of course, in Western Christian culture, we know this as the period leading up to Christmas. For many centuries, Eastern Christians have prepared with a 40-day Nativity Fast.

By Western standards, this is a daunting spiritual and physical challenge. Traditional Orthodox fasting means giving up meat and dairy in addition to fish, wine and oil; fish, wine and oil are, however, permitted on specific days. (Learn more from the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America.) Throughout the Nativity Fast, several other holidays take place, such as St. Andrew’s Day, St. Nicholas Day and recognition of those prophets regarded by Eastern Christians as having prepared the way for the Incarnation: Obadiah, Nahum, Habbakuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Daniel and the Three Holy Youths.

Two periods comprise the Nativity Fast: Nov. 15-Dec. 19, and Dec. 20-24. December 20 launches the Forefeast of the Nativity, with chanting of Nativity hymns each day through the Dec. 24 (Paramony). On Paramony, no solid food is consumed until the first star is observed in the evening sky, and afterward, the fast is joyously broken.

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. (OCA.org has more.) Fasting for Orthodox Christians includes abstinence from foods, negative emotions and greed; prayer and almsgiving complement the fasting period.

Note: The Nativity Fast is observed November 15-December 24 in the Gregorian calendar. Some Orthodox follow other traditional calendars. For example, many Armenian Christians begin their fast later and focus on January 6 as the Feast of the Nativity.