by George Hawkins
In the Orthodox Faith, Christmas is one of our most important celebrations. The Feast of the Nativity is one of the twelve Great Feasts of the Church. Over and above the twelve Great Feasts is the Feast of Feasts – Pascha (Easter). In the Orthodox Church, Christmas is sometimes known as the Winter Pascha, showing its importance to the Christian Faith.
The origins of the Christmas celebration are complex. Originally Christmas was not celebrated as a Feast on its own, but as part of the Feast of Theophany or the Baptism of Christ which is celebrated on the 6th of January (19th of January on the Gregorian Calendar.) Some of the non-Calchedonian Churches continue to use this date for Christmas. For the Orthodox Christians, Theophany is the culmination of the Christmas season.
As the importance of celebrating Christmas as a Feast in its own right grew, different areas celebrated on different dates but eventually all came to follow the practice of the Church in Rome of celebrating Christmas on December 25. Rome was celebrating Nativity on this date by the 350s AD, with evidence pointing to this date as early as the 330s or earlier. In 274 AD Emperor Aurelian instituted the pagan celebration of the ‘Birth of the Invincible Sun’, partially as a response to the growth of Christianity in the Empire. The Christians were celebrating the birth of Christ at around this time of the year, and people were being drawn from pagan worship to Christianity, and so the Emperor instituted this festival, which probably combined elements of older pagan worship relating to the winter solstice.
The date of December 25 was chosen via an ancient custom that [the Judean] prophets died either on the date of their conception or birth. Tradition held that Christ was crucified on March 25 – thus the Feast of the Annunciation was held on this date, December 25 coming 9 months later. While some aspects to the festivities related to Christmas may have their roots in pagan festivals, they have been Christianised. Orthodoxy has a long history of absorbing local culture where it does not contradict the basic truths of the Christian Faith, and this is also the case with some traditions relating to Christmas. To this day, the Orthodox Faith celebrates the Nativity of Christ on December 25. As the Russian Orthodox Church (and many other Orthodox Churches) use the Julian calendar, this equates to January 7 on the Western (Gregorian) calendar.
The 40 days prior to Christmas from November 15/28* are known as Advent. For these 40 days, Orthodox Christians fast in spiritual preparation for the Feast. This fast is known as either the Christmas Fast or as St Philip’s Fast, starting as it does the day after St Philip’s Day (14/27 November). During this fast, Orthodox Christians abstain from meat, dairy products and eggs. It is not as strict as Great lent however, and on some days fish is allowed, as is food cooked in oil. However there are also strict days within this fast where fish is not allowed, in particular, the last week before Christmas is a strict fast. Christmas Eve is a very strict fast day. Traditionally the only food that was to be eaten was wheat boiled in honey. A Russian tradition is to fast during the day until the first evening star is visible, and then there is a special meal of 12 dishes in honour of the twelve apostles. This meal should also be Lenten as the fast does not end until after the Liturgy on Christmas morning.
During any fasting period, Orthodox Christians try to pray more, as well as have frequent Confession and Communion. Fasting is a kind of ‘time-out’ and it helps us to cleanse ourselves, and it helps us to pray and not being weighed down with heavy, rich food, we are more easily able to examine ourselves and our lives, thus it is very important in the spiritual preparation for Christmas (or indeed as preparation for Holy Communion – before which we fast also.)
Once advent has begun, we begin to sing the Christmas canon during matins. The main Christmas services however start on Christmas Eve in the morning. First there are the Royal Hours (1st, 3rd, 6th and 9th Hours). These Royal Hours have some differences to the regular Hours that are read in Church in that they also include Old Testament readings, which correspond to and foretell the Feast. There are also Apostle and Gospel readings. Royal Hours are also read on Theophany Eve and on Good Friday. On Christmas Eve, the readings are as follows:
1st Hour: Psalms 5, 45, 46. Micah 5:2-4, Hebrews 1:1-12, Matthew 1:18-25
3rd Hour: Psalms 67, 87, 51. Baruch 3:36-4:4, Galatians 3:23-4:4, Luke 2:1-20
6th Hour: Psalms 72, 132, 91. Isaiah 7:10-16, 8:1-4,9,10. Hebrews 1:10-2:3, Matthew 2:1-12
9th Hour: Psalms 110, 111, 86. Isaiah 9:6-7, Hebrews 2:11-18, Matthew 2:13-23.
Following the Royal Hours is the Liturgy of St. Basil the Great, which is used only a few times in the year – the normal Liturgy being that of St John Chrysostom. The Liturgy leads straight into Vespers, during which there are further readings from the Bible: Genesis 1:1-13 – the creation of man by God; Numbers 24:2-9,17,18 – the star out of Jacob and the birth of the Messiah to whom all men will submit; Micah 4:6,7, 5:2-4 – the birth of Christ in Bethlehem; Isaiah 11:1-10 – the Rod coming forth from the Root of Jesse; Baruch 3:36-38, 4:1-4 – the appearance of God on Earth and of His life among men; Daniel 2:31-36, 44, 45 – the restoration of the Heavenly Kingdom by God.
In the evening we gather in Church again for the All-night Vigil. This would normally start with Vespers, but as Vespers were celebrated at the end of the Liturgy, we instead begin with Great Compline and the singing of the verses of God is with us. At the end of Great Compline, we sing the Christmas troparion: Thy Nativity, O Christ our God, shined the light of knowledge upon the world; for therein they that adored the stars were taught by a star to worship Thee, the Sun of righteousness, and to know Thee, the Dayspring from on high: O Lord, glory be to Thee.
At the beginning of Matins, as usual the Six Psalms are read. What is different, however, is that instead of the Reader reading at the start of the Psalms: Glory to God in the highest, on Earth peace, good will among men, the choir sings these words together with the Heavenly choir of angels.
During the Canon we sing the Kontakion of the Feast: Today the Virgin giveth birth to Him who is beyond being, and the earth offereth a cave to Him who is unapproachable; angels doxologise with shepherds, and Magi journey with a star; for a young Child, the pre-eternal god is born for our sake.
At Liturgy on Christmas morning, instead of the usual psalms we sing special antiphons specific to the Feast. The Apostle reading is Galatians 4:4-7 and the Gospel reading is Matthew 2:1-12 – the visit of the Wise Men – the first of many Gentiles that would seek the King of the Jews. With the Liturgy and Holy Communion, the fast is over, and a period of celebration begins which takes us right through to the Feast of Theophany – this whole period is fast free in celebration of the birth of Christ. We greet each other with the words “Christ is born!” replying, “Let us glorify Him!”
*Where two dates are given the first is the Julian Calendar date, the second the Gregorian or Western calendar date.