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It’s still Christmas throughout half of Europe. The birth of Jesus in the Orthodox tradition

The majority of Orthodox Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus on January 7, preceded by a strict fast. The feast comes alive with great symbolism and manifold traditions across several Countries. The account of the Bulgarian priest, Fr Dobromir Dimitrov

Funzione liturgica del Natale nella Chiesa ortodossa

In most Western Countries Christmas is now over, but for Orthodox Christians – Moscow’s patriarchate, Serbia, Belarus, Georgia, Macedonia, Montenegro – Christmas celebrations fall on the 6th (Christmas Eve) and the 7th of January (Nativity). The difference is due to the Julian calendar used by the Orthodox Church. However, the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople (including Greece), the Bulgarian and Romanian Orthodox Churches celebrate Christmas on December 24-25. Thus Christmas celebrations lie ahead in many European Countries.

Fasting. For practising Christians, preparation for Christmas begins forty days in advance with a fast that entails fasting from red meat, eggs, and dairy products. Conversely, in the Greek tradition fish can be eaten, whereas in Slav Countries it is consumed only during festivities.

“The purpose of the fast is to access the Eucharist”

– explained Fr Dobromir Dimitrov, Orthodox priest, Theology Professor at the Saints Cyril and Methodius University of Veliko Tarnovo (Bulgaria). For Orthodox Christians “being in this ‘state of grace’ entails a period of fasting that may vary according to the recommendations of the spiritual director.” That’s why practising faithful usually approach the Holy Communion only four times a year, notably at the beginning of the Lenten period. Once the celebrations are over everyone receives the so-called “nafora” (antidoron) that is, blessed, but non-consecrated, bread.

Various different customs. “However – Dimitrov said – there are no rules valid for everyone in the Orthodox world: we have ‘variety within unity’. And while a ritual or a tradition may be practised in Athens, it is not necessarily the same in Moscow.” The picture is enriched with a combination of religious, cultural and folkloristic traditions in the various Countries where Orthodoxy is widespread.

Meat is not eaten on Christmas Eve Holy suppers. Some Russian traditions envisage fasting until the appearance of the first star in the sky, a symbol of the star of Bethlehem. The supper begins with cooked wheat or barley sweetened with honey. In the Balkans the meal envisages different foods and several vegetable dishes.

“In the Bulgarian Orthodox tradition the head of the family incenses the table. The Budnik – envisaging the burning of a log from an oak tree – is a part of the Serbian tradition, while hay is placed under the table to symbolize the manger”, said Fr. Dimitrov. In the Western Balkans “budniks” are solemnly burnt in front of churches. Several traditions include the consumption of “christopsomo”, the Bread of Christ, as in Greece, where it resembles the Italian traditional Christmas cake, the “panettone”; the Serbian “cestniza” and the Bulgarian “pitca”. The traditional Christmas greeting in Serbia is “Hristos se rodi” (Christ is born), followed by the reply: “Voustinu se rodi” (He is truly born).

The image of the Nativity scene. The main religious function is the liturgical celebration of the day. The icon of the Nativity is displayed at the centre of every church. “There is also a beautiful tradition whereby the Child Jesus is wrapped in sashes and the crib is shaped like a coffin, symbolizing the fate of death awaiting the newborn Saviour”, said Fr. Dimitrov.

The Epiphany. Christmas celebrations in the Orthodox world end with the celebration of the Epiphany and the solemnity of Saint John the Baptist, on January 6-7 according to the Julian calendar, or January 19-20 according to the Gregorian. “On the Epiphany (Bogojavlenie in Slavish) – pointed out Fr Dimitrov – unlike Catholics, the Orthodox celebrate the Feast of the Lord in the act of His baptism.” He added that

“in the first centuries Christians would commemorate three events during the Feast of the Epiphany. These were: Christmas, His manifestation through the Magi, and the Baptism of Jesus.”Today, Eastern churches celebrate the blessing of the water, often also directly in the sea or in a river: the priest throws a crucifix in the water and some men dive in to take it. A special blessing awaits them.

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