• Institute for a Greater Europe

The Institute Presents: Orthodox Christian Christmas Traditions 2021

Whilst 2021 has started under much the same conditions as 2020 ended, we hope that all of our followers that celebrate Christmas today or around this time enjoy with friends and family! Wishing all a very happy Christmas and a good start to the year.

Orthodox Christmas by Valerii Tkachenko, CC BY 2.0

Armenia - Noemi Akopian

In Armenia, Christmas is a quiet religious holiday celebrated on January 6. Churches hold masses commemorating the birth of Christ, and families usually sit down for a traditional dinner of fish, wine and rice pilaf with dried fruits, nuts and lavash (flatbread). It is quite common to toast one another with the expression "Christ is born and revealed. Blessed is the revelation." (Քրիստոս ծնավ եւ հայտնեցավ։ Ձեզ եւ մեզ մեծ ավետիս։ Kristos dzenav yev haytnetsav. Dzez yev mez medz avetis.)

A delicious example of Pilaf

Egypt - Abdelrahim Abdallah

Copts are the indigenous ethnic group of Egypt. They celebrate Christmas on January 7th as per the Coptic calendar, which is based on the ancient Egyptian calendar helping Egyptian farmers calculate agricultural seasons since ca. 3000 BC. Before the introduction of the Gregorian calendar in 1582 AD, Coptic and Western Christmas were celebrated on the same day. However, as the introduction of the Gregorian calendar forced a shift of 10 days which the Coptic calendar did not follow, Coptic Christmas was initially moved to January 4th as per the widely used Gregorian calendar (but still December 25th on the Coptic calendar). Furthermore, the Gregorian calendar skips 3 leap days every 400 years, which the Coptic calendar does not do, which resulted in moving the Gregorian date of Coptic Christmas to January 7th nowadays and which will result in moving the celebrations of Coptic Christmas to January 8th in the year 2100.

Christmas Mass is arguably the main event at the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria (and thus Egypt), alongside Coptic Easter, and is also a highly politicized event in which key political figures of Muslim-dominated Egypt take the chance to give their greetings and best wishes to Coptic Christians, who make up 10-15% of population, often as a symbolic sign against fundamentalist Islamists who renounce the practice. 40 days before Coptic Christmas, Copts observe the Fast of the Advent, in which they abstain from consuming any dairy, meat or poultry products. Accordingly, Christmas celebrations in Egypt are closely associated with having a hearty dinner after church service given the 40-day abstention from Egyptian specialties such as Fatta, a dish of rice, bread, meat cubes and a tomato sauce with vinegar and garlic. Traditionally, platters of Kahk, an Egyptian cookie specialty, are passed around friends, family and neighbours.

Inside a church in Al Fustat neighborhood, Cairo, Egypt. By Christopher Rose, via Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Macedonia - Adrian Waters

Christmas celebrations in Macedonia start on 5th January, a date known as kolede. In the evening children go from door to door carol singing in exchange for fruits, nuts and sweets. At the same time adults gather in their districts to ignite a bonfire in honour of the Holy Fire, which is considered to be a miracle that happens on an annual basis. They would then eat and dance to traditional Macedonian music. In addition the locals share and consume a bannock bread with a hidden coin. Whoever finds the coin in his/her bread would ignite the bonfire and organise kolede for the following year. On Christmas Eve (6th January) a traditional oak log (badnik) is brought to the family hearth. This is cut into three pieces, to represent the Holy Trinity, which are then carried by the father. A son or another family member receives each piece and places it on the fire. During the evening the traditional Christmas dinner (posna vecera) is eaten. This consists of fried/roasted fish, beans, pies with leek, cabbage rolls filled with rice and spices (sarma), potatoes, vegetables, nuts and fresh and dried fruits. At the end of the meal another bannock bread with a coin is shared and consumed among family members with one piece left for God. The one who finds the coin will be regarded as the luckiest family member during the next year. If the coins is discovered in God’s piece then He will give the family a year of happiness, health and prosperity. Afterwards, the coin is dropped into a glass of red wine (which symbolises Jesus’ blood) and each family member takes a sip for happiness, health and prosperity of the whole family. Many Macedonians would leave their leftovers until the following morning because they believe that God will take a bite. On Christmas Day (7th January) there is a church mass in the morning and for lunch people have a meal that is usually rich and includes meat. The traditional Christmas Day greeting is “Hristos se rodi” (Christ is born) to which you reply “Navistina se rodi” (He truly is born).

Russia - Daniil Chubar

Russia has a different approach to Christmas compared to European countries. Here, the main holiday is New Year, when Christmas is less popular and more religious. However, given the importance of the Orthodox faith (and church) for the country, Christmas here is still a big national holiday that gathers families together. The most important part of Christmas in Russia is church services, that start annually at midnight of 7th of January. The biggest service is held in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour that was blown up by Soviets in 1931 and built again in the 2000. The importance of this holiday can be measured by the amount of important people attending this service: the president (not always in this church, however) is there, along with many other that are close to power (that can be a good example of ties between Russian orthodox church and power in Russia). For many Russians Christmas is highly important despite any political processes going on in the country: at midnight of this holiday, every parking lot near biggest churches in town will be full.

Vladimir Putin celebrates Christmas with orthodox Christians in St Petersburg, Presidential Press and Info Office, CC BY 4.0

Serbia - Marko Luković

Due to the link between Orthodox faith and Serbian national identity, one could say that Christmas is the most important holiday in Serbia. On Christmas Eve, in Orthodox faith that would be 6 January, the family visits the Serbian Orthodox church. While, as per usual, lighting candles for the deceased, Christ and the spirit of the house is commonly done, just like praying in front of icons, on Christmas Eve there is a special aspect exclusive to Serbian Christmas: Annually, each family brings home the “badnjak”, which is an Oak branch, felled and cut ceremoniously in the early morning of Christmas Eve. Meanwhile, a big fire is prepared, where families bring their badnjak from one year ago and throw it into it. This is supposed to bring good luck, prosperity and happiness for the next year.

Christmas Eve is also the last day of the Christmas/pre-Christmas fasting, so the most common specialties served are “prebranac”, a type of bean-dish, cabbage and fish. On the first day of Christmas, one greets the respective other with the words “Hristos se rodi”, which translates to “Christ has been born”. The answer to that greeting is “Vaistinu se rodi”, which roughly translates to “He has truly been born”. Also. the first day of Christmas is the end of fasting, which is celebrated usually with meat-heavy dishes, like “pečenje” - suckling pig - and a type of cabbage with meat. That differs in other parts of Serbia, as some make cabbage-rolls with meat (“sarme”) while others prepare it almost stew-like. However, most importantly, it is the Christmas spirit that should be in the centre of festivities. The family is supposed to celebrate together in a warm atmosphere, so the first day of Christmas are spent at home with the loved ones, while guests are invited after it. There are usually no gifts for Christmas in Serbia (capitalism has not arrived 100% yet), so the focus really is on love and happiness.

Having summed that up, there is only more thing that needs to be said - Hristos se rodi!

The St Sava Temple where many Serbians celebrate Christmas, by Almarq, CC BY-SA 3.0

Ukraine - Anna Korienieva

Ukrainian Christmas festivities begin on the 6th of January, as the Orthodox Church countries use the old “Julian” calendar for their church holidays. The country is known as “breadbasket country” because of the richness of its soil and vast amounts of food products. This can be definitely seen during Christmas celebrations, as 12 dishes representing Jesus's 12 disciples are required to be on the table.

The Christmas Eve Supper or Sviata Vecheria (Holy Supper) does not start until the first star - which is believed to be the Star of Bethlehem - is seen in the sky. Special dish is “kutia” which is a type of sweet porridge made of wheat. In every family, however, the grain used as well as other ingredients vary.

After having family dinner, people often pay visits to their relatives and bring with “kutia” as a treat. In the villages you can see more traditional celebrations. Groups of dressed young people carrying a six-pointed star attached to a long stick with a light in its center are going from house to house singing Christmas songs koliadky.

The songs are wishes to the household of better crops, wealth and health in the upcoming year. The Ukrainian carol “Shchedryk” is where the popular “Carol of the Bells” came from. In return for singing, the carollers get some treats like sweets and coins. There are also many other traditions and rituals connected with Christmas celebrations in Ukraine, which might be describes in a separate book!

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