I live in a multi-cultural family. We celebrate Christmas today, and on January 7. This gives me plenty of time to reflect on the differences between Western and Orthodox celebrations of day of the birth of Jesus Christ.
I remember Christmas of my youth being filled with presents (US views), Christmas Eve mass and lots of spaghetti cooked by my father and lasagna by my sister (Italian), and extended family gathered together. As I grew older and had kids of my own, it always bothered me that it seemed the present count began to mean more to society than the birthday of Jesus.
My Russian (Ukrainian/Eastern European) family brought back the true meaning of Christmas for me. In Ukraine, I saw many of the traditions of old still being practiced, and my family still practices many of those traditions in the USA today.
My wife never had a Christmas tree. She would go to the tree lot where they sold trees, and she would gather evergreen branches to decorate the home. Evergreen was a symbol of life before the first Christmas. People either prayed outside among the evergreens, or they decorated their homes with evergreen branches during winter in order to celebrate life. What a fitting celebration of the birth of Christ. We do have a Christmas tree each year.
The angel on top of the tree is a must in our family. We have never used a star. For us, the angel symbolizes the significance of the angels who appeared above Bethlehem to announce Jesus’ birth on the first Christmas. Russians, who tend to be a bit superstitious, use the angels to make a statement of faith.
Russians also do not have Santa Claus, rather they have Father Frost (Ded Moroz) and his beautiful Snegurochka (snow maiden granddaughter). Like Santa, he brings gifts, but not in secret – and they are brought on New Years in order to separate the more commercial aspect of gift giving from Christmas and the true meaning of Christmas.
On Christmas Eve, Russian families have a festive meal called “The Holy Supper.” Family gathers at the table to honor the coming Christ Child. A white table cloth, symbolic of Christ’s swaddling clothes, covers the table (we skip the hay) to remind the diners of Jesus in the manger. A tall white candle is placed in the center of the table, which symbolizes Christ as “the Light of the World.” Bread is served, and symbolizes Christ as “the Bread of Life.”
The meal starts with prayer, led by the father of the family. This is a prayer of thanksgiving for all the blessings of the past year, followed by prayers for the good things int he coming year. Usually, people visiting the home are greeted with “Christ is Born!” And the family responds “Glorify Him!”
(My wife, father, and daughter)
The mother usually blesses each person with honey in the form of a cross on each forehead, saying “In the Name of the Father and the Son and of the Holy Spirit, may you have sweetness and many good things in life and in the new year.” This is followed by everyone partaking of the bread, dipping it first in honey and then in chopped garlic. Honey is symbolic of the sweetness of life, and garlic of the bitterness.
Dishes do not get washed until presents are opened. Presents are almost always something practical: a warm winter jacket, shoes, high heel boots for women, and non-practical gifts are saved for children. I have to admit that the Italian blood in me always sees me purchasing at least one item for my wife that is not practical (in my eyes – but totally necessary in hers).
I bring this up because our country has commercialized Christmas, and removed Jesus as the center of the holiday in the name of political correctness. I want to respect other people’s beliefs, which is why I wish my Jewish friends “Happy Hanukkah,” (and they always wish us “Merry Christmas.)” There are a lot of religious holidays during Winter, but December 25 and January 7 are “the day of Christ” and we keep that view always.
Final thoughts on this Christmas morning, from my family to yours:
“Joy to the world, the Lord is come. Let earth receive her King!” (Musical link)