Friday, December 4, 2009, 14:27 by
The Eastern Orthodox Church still uses the Julian Calendar to celebrate Christmas. Since there is a variance of 13 days between the Gregorian and Julian calendars, this comes on January 7.
In the Orthodox Church, fasting is still observed – indeed, Christmas Day is a meatless day for some of the faithful (which to some extent explains why fish are eaten in Poland). Velikiy Post, “The Great Fast”, also known as “Philip’s Fast”, is perhaps the most onerous period of fasting, leaving aside all celebration during a six-week Nativity fast until the Orthodox Nativity celebrations. The idea is to recall the famine that existed in peoples’ souls before they acknowledged Christ as their Saviour.
The Eastern Orthodox Church holds that Advent represents the time before Christ. It was a time when God’s people had wandered away from righteousness.
Fasting is a spiritual, emotional, physical and mental practice that prepares one for the Coming of the Lord. It cleanses the body, the soul and the mind, and restores equilibrium, and teaches one how to control impulses and worldly appetites. It is taken for granted that one abstains from sex during fasting days.
As a corollary, it is expected that one gives alms and donations during this time. This is a parallel of Golden Rule – ‘do as you would be done by’, since Orthodox Christians believe that the ultimate goal of every Christian is to become like God – “theosis” or “deification”.
There are four main fasts (besides the Wednesday and Friday ones) in the Orthodox Church; The Nativity Fast; Great Lent preceding Palm Sunday); The Apostles’ Fast (which begins on the Monday the first Sunday after Pentecost; and The Dormition Fast, preceding the Dormition of the Theotokos (“Repose of The Virgin Mary”), from August 1 to August 15.
During this fast, which began on the Monday after Thanksgiving, dairy products and meats, as well as alcohol, are avoided on most days.
For Christmas, Russian Orthodox congregations may organise a wonderful communal feast of all manner of vegetables, prunes, garlic, honey, lochsia (a bread pudding), and pagach (a flat cabbage bread in Slovakia and potato pie in Ukraine, or a potato or cabbage filling for pizza dough elsewhere), to which are invited people who would otherwise be on their own. Many households cook a lot of meat, in order to compensate for the absence of it during fasting.
It is traditional to switch off all electrical lights in the house on Christmas Eve. Children then look at the sky for the First Star, symbolising the Star of Bethlehem. When it appears, it would be the signal for the meal to begin. When the fast is broken, and with it the period of darkness, people appreciate the meal all the more because of the fast that would have preceded it.
In some households, straw is put under the table to remind children of the Manger – however, coins and sweets are hidden in it, for which the children rummage after the meal is over. Rather than celebrate the run-up to Christmas, Orthodox Christians are more likely to celebrate the ten days that follow it.
Saint Nicholas of Mira, whom the Orthodox Church holds in great esteem, is taken as a model of how one ought to prepare for the Coming of the Lord. It is customary to share one’s worldly goods, as he did, with those who have no means. Most Eastern Orthodox Christians are disgusted at the very idea of Santa Claus, whom they call “a perversion of Saint Nicholas”.