Orthodox Christmas Traditions
A nativity icon from the Russian Orthodox Church.
Orthodox Christians include members of the Eastern Orthodox Church which is prevalent in Russia and Eastern Europe, and also the Oriental Orthodox churches such as Coptic, Ethiopian and Syrian. With such an array of religious traditions and local cultures, as you can imagine there are a rich diversity ofOrthodox ChristmasTraditions.
Pope Tawadros of Copt orthodox of Alexandria.
Christmas is a more purely religious festival in Orthodox tradition – it is not as commercial as in some other parts of the world. For most Orthodox Christians it is a time of reflection and renewal, of affirming the bonds of friendship and family.
Orthodox Christianity – origins of tradition
The Oriental Orthodox churchesbroke away from the western Christian churches in 451, when they rejected the dogmatic definitions contained in the Council of Chalcedon. The Eastern Orthodox churches date from the East-West Schism of 1054.
Some Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas on December 25th, but others mark the birth of Jesus on a variety of dates including January 7th and January 19th. It depends on which calendar the particular church follows – while western Christendom has adopted the Gregorian calendar, some Orthodox churches use the older Julian calendar to calculate the dates for holy feast days. December 25th on the original Julian calendar falls on January 7th of our calendar.
Most Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas on this date, however some chruches, including Armenian orthodox Christians use the revised Julian calendar and their Christmas falls on January 6th of our calendar.
Russian Orthodox Church
While Christmas is a very important religious celebration for Orthodox Christians, it falls second to Easter which they consider to be the most important date in the religious calendar.
An introduction to Orthodox Christianity
Religious Observance of Orthodox Christmas
Most believers in the Eastern Orthodox Church prepare for Christmas with 40 days of fasting, continuing right up until late on Christmas Eve Jan 6th. Traditionally, when the first star appears on Christmas Eve Eastern Orthodox Christians will break their fast with a celebratory meal.
Also on Christmas Eve, traditionally Orthodox Christians will cut a branch from a tree and bring it into their home, as a symbol that Jesus is entering their house and their hearts.
A prayer and blessing will be said before the Christmas Eve feast begins, and the head of the family will greet each person present with the traditional Christmas greeting of ‘Christ is born’ to which the response is ‘Glorify him!’. Then the bread will be torn by hand and shared with all present. Some families will have straw scattered around the table, as a reminder of Jesus’s birth in the manger.
On Christmas Day, Orthodox Christians will attend divine liturgy, which will usually be a little longer than usual due to being an exceptional religious holiday. It is traditional to light candles in honor of Jesus, as light of the world. Afterwards people walk in procession to a sea, lake or river.The water will be blessed as part of an outdoor ceremony, and some people will take the blessed water back to their homes.
An example of a particularly large Serbian Cesnica bread.
Orthodox Christmas Food
The food traditionally associated with Christmas depends on the location and culture of the people celebrating. Orthodox Christmas food is very different from the traditional turkey or roast ham of Western Christianity.
For example in Russia and Ukraine the Christmas Eve feast should include twelve different foods (as a symbol of the twelve apostles), including the traditional Kutia which is made from cooked wheat, honey, poppy seeds, raisins and occasionally walnuts. It is a kind of Christmas porridge, with the seeds included as a symbol of hope for the year ahead. The meal can contain fish but not meat.
In Serbia on Christmas Day the center of the table will be occupied by a special bread known as Cesnica. It is usually baked as a sweet bread, and always has a silver coin inside – whoever finds the coin in his or her bread will have great luck for the year to come. The meal itself will often center on roast big, with side dishes such as sausage, roast potatoes and nut strudel.
In Greek Orthodox tradition, sesame baklava is baked on Christmas Eve whileChristopsomo is the bread baked on Christmas Day (it means. literally ‘Christ’s bread’). As in Serbia, pork is the traditional roast meat of Greek tables at Christmas – turkey is a relative newcomer.
Christmas in the Oriental Orthodox Churches
There are also many Orthodox Christian churches in Africa (Egyptian, Ethiopian, Eritrean and Coptic) and Asia (Syria, India).
In the Coptic church fasting before Christmas lasts 43 days, and throughout the final 30 days certain hymns are chanted in a manner known as ‘seven and four’.
In Ethiopia, more than half the population are Orthodox Christians. People attend church on Christmas day, and are given candles as they enter the church. After lighting their candles the entire congregation processes three times around the church. They stand for all of the three hour ceremony. After the service the rest of the day is spent celebrating, with food, dancing and sports.
While traditions in all Orthodox Christmas celebrations may vary according to local culture, the central message of Christmas remains the same (as it does in Western Christianity); it is a time of love and hope, of kindness to strangers and friendship renewed.
Wishing you a joyful and peaceful Christmas season!