The Holy Supper
Preparation for Christmas begins with the first day of the Christmas Fast called "Philipovka" from the fact that it starts on the first day after the Feast of St. Philip (November 14/27) [new calendar/old calendar]. No festivities of any kind are permitted during this period. It is a time for prayer and fasting. The period of preparation culminates on the day before the feast - Christmas Eve. The father of the home spends the day caring for the livestock; the women of the house are busy baking, cooking and cleaning. Weeks before this the house and small huts are whitewashed or painted inside and out. Now everything inside has to be very tidy and care taken that enough food is prepared for the holiday season. As darkness settles, the family comes together for the Christmas Eve dinner - the Holy Supper.
As the first star of the evening appears, the festivities begin. The father comes into the room, extends Christmas greetings and spreads hay over the floor. Next he places a sheaf of wheat and other farm products (a sample of each) on the table. With a prayer, he ties the four legs of the table with a chain, asking God's blessing and protection from all corners of the world. He also prays that the family be always united like the links of the chain and that those separated from the family be united to them in spirit. This being done, the candles are lit and a star with a candle is placed in a window as a sign of welcome to any stranger who is hungry or needs shelter.
After thus the mother sprinkles everyone present with holy water. Then the father takes the holy water to the barn to bless the animals and to make sure that on this holy night they are well fed. Now a traditional toast is offered. Then the mother takes a clove of garlic, dips it in some honey, and makes the sign of the cross upon the forehead of those present. The honey symbolizes the sweetness of life, the garlic symbolizes the bitterness. Thus, each is reminded to bear sweetness and bitterness of life during the coming year.
The supper consists of mushroom soup (with sauerkraut juice); bobal'ki (small biscuit like breads mixed with nuts or poppy seeds); beans; stewed fruits and/or vegetable dishes; fish; kolachy (Christmas cakes) and tea. The menu varies according to the custom of the village. However, whatever the menu, NO MEAT is served. In some places, the abstinence includes dairy products. (Twelve courses are traditionally served, reminiscent of the Twelve Apostles, with one empty place setting at the table for any unseen, or unexpected guest -- perhaps even Christ himself disguised as such).
Prayers are offered during supper for a prosperous growth of products during the coming year. Carols are sung, presents exchanged. An exciting part of the evening for the children would be the hunt for nuts and fruit hidden in the straw on the floor by the father of the house. The games are interrupted by the carolers, who make the village rounds.
By eleven 'o'clock all begin to prepare for church. The Christmas Eve services consist of the Great Compline - an evening service. The church resounds with the chanting of verses taken from the Book of Isaiah: God is with us; all you nations understand and do penance for God is with us! After the church services the men of the village call upon each other offering Christmas greetings to neighbors or favorite friends. Children are often chosen to extend these greetings. The most eloquent receives a special reward from parents, grandparents or godparents. These well-wishers are eagerly awaited at every home. If by chance a high ranking official of the village or county drops in as a well-wisher it is considered not only an honor but a good omen.
By the time the well-wishing is complete, the church bells call the people to Christmas Divine Liturgy. Usually those who were shepherds were given a position of honor during this Liturgy. They came with their bagpipes and after Liturgy played Christmas Carols. Afterwards everyone journeys home and quiet reigns in the village until the afternoon when the church bells again call the people for Christmas Day Vespers. More carol singing follows and the festivities of Christmas extend until the feast of Theophany (January 6/19).
A popular practice is the carol singing carried on by the Yaslichkary who carry a Nativity Shrine in the shape of a small church. Angels lead the singers while the old wise shepherd (Kuba or Guba) tags along. They visit every home - every family expects them. They are dressed in white garments with high cylinder shaped hats, with ribbons of flashy colors across their breast. The Kuba is the comedian of the group, chasing children with his wooden hatchet and threatening to kidnap the bad ones in the bag he carries into which he also collects the gifts the Yaslichkary receive. The caroling continues during the three-day observance of Christmas.
Thus, with some variations did our parents, grandparents and great grandparents celebrate the feast of Christmas, many of which are retained today, as some of these traditions have been kept; others abandoned and new ones now take their place. However we celebrate Christmas today - - these customs form a part of the heritage and history of our people.
With the "St. Philip's Fast" beginning November 15/28, prayer and fasting become the way of life - set aside for only the most spiritual of reasons. One of the "breaks" in the continuity of the subdued life is the observance of the Feast of Saint Nicholas on December 6/19. It is on this day that gifts are given. Certainly not the extravagant type of gifts American children find so appealing, but fruits, nuts, simple toys, books or other worthwhile items. The concept of the gift was to convey the idea that we receive what we need - not always (or only) what we want or desire. The generous soul responsible for the gift-giving, known to us as St. Nicholas, has been translated into Santa Claus. The real St. Nicholas was a 4th Century Bishop of Asia Minor (now part of Turkey) known for his generosity and financial aid to those who were in desperate situations. He has become the patron for children, several occupations - sailor, pawn brokers among them; countries, for example Russia; and the entire Byzantine Church. The familiar three-ball insignia of pawn brokers has come down from a legend attributed to the saintly Bishop, who saved three daughters of a townsman from prostitution by mysteriously supplying a bag of gold - tossed through an open window at night - for the dowry of each; which they found at the foot of their beds upon awakening.
After the brief levity of St. Nicholas' Day, the tenor of prayer and fasting resumes. There are no carols sung yet - they await the announcement of Christ's birth at the church services of Christmas Eve. At home, at the sight of the first star in the heavens that evening, a special Holy Supper - of meatless dishes - is had. Then the tree is decorated with candles, fruits and nuts (if there is a tree to decorate at all).
All the anticipation of the forty days' fasting comes to a conclusion with the Divine Liturgy on Christmas Day itself, when the festive meats and other foods are eaten, of course after the Christmas Day church services have been attended.
Now come the carols. Now comes the festive celebration. Now come the joyous festivities - visiting friends and relatives with the salutation "Christ is Born!" only to be answered "Glorify Him"!
This time of rejoicing continues for two weeks and is capped with the observance of the Feast of Theophany, celebrating the Baptism of Christ in the Jordan River by John the Baptist - at which event Christ's Divinity was revealed. His Presence, the Voice of the Father and the Spirit in the form of a dove is the expression of the Triune God.
Now, with waters blessed by the priest, each home is visited with a special blessing upon the home and its inhabitants that the New Year be one of cooperation with the gift of God; His Son and the participation in the Life He has come to lead us in toward Salvation.
The winter season uses Christ's Nativity as a fulcrum - balanced by forty days of preparation - and (in some places) forty days of rejoicing, continuing until Christ's Encounter with Simeon and Anna, forty days later (February 2/15) at which time the carols cease. In this way the Incarnation of Our Lord is not the climax of the season, but the pivot point. People are not then "Christmassed out" when the happy event occurs, but just begin to enjoy its benefits.