Churches share Orthodox tradition
Churches share Orthodox tradition
Photo by Lillian DeDomenic
by Dona Dreeland Staff Writer
January 5, 2012
If Eastern Orthodox Christmas customs seem very "Old Country," it's
because they are.
The Ukrainians, Serbians and Carpatho-Rusyns, for example, created their
at-home rituals in little villages long ago. They celebrated simply in
their own languages but with deep significance. Each custom was informed
by their Orthodox faith.
Some share traditions, such as refraining from eating meat, dairy
products and eggs for 40 days before Christmas and including garlic and
honey in the Christmas Eve meal to symbolize the bitterness and
sweetness in life
Other Christians mark their Christmas celebrations on Dec. 25, according
to the Gregorian calendar, which was created by Pope Gregory XIII in
1582, centuries after the western and eastern churches separated in 1054.
Customs are the complement to the real meaning of Christmas for the Rev.
Dragoljub C. Malich, pastor of St. Nicholas Serbian Orthodox Church in
"The focus is on Christ and the Christian faith for salvation and
worship," he said.
Malich again will lead the Christmas liturgies, as he has during his 42
years of ministry at the church.
On Christmas Eve, customs bring families together at a table filled with
many foods that are free of meat, dairy products and eggs.
"There is a variety of tastes of everything," Malich said. "Even
children have a taste of garlic."
It is a busy time.
"On Christmas Eve," Malich said, "there is no sitting down with all the
Families with fireplaces burn an oak Yule log, symbolizing "the scent
and warmth of God's love for the people," he said.
Straw is spread on the floor and covered by a sheet. Because straw
nestled the baby Jesus in the manger, the Orthodox honor its use.
Malich described the good conversations at past gatherings, "the hot
toddies of diluted, sweetened brandy; nuts and fruits; carols and prayers."
Later, in church, Bible readings, special hymns and a special sermon
spark "a radiant atmosphere," Malich said.
"It's like everyone was given a shot of spirit, happiness, gladness and
All of this solemn and jubilant celebration comes after "six weeks of
fasting, not Christmas partying."
His congregation sees no reason to join other Christmas revelers,
including some of the Orthodox brethren, in their December holiday.
"We're holding on to the old calendar," the pastor said.
He said some members have told him: "This gives me the opportunity to
celebrate Christmas spiritually when the noise and commercialism are over."
To Malich and others of the Orthodox tradition, "the date is not
important as is the meaning of the day."
For the Rev. Steve Repa, pastor of SS. Peter & Paul Ukrainian Orthodox
Church in Carnegie, the story of Christmas is one the world was waiting
"God had been revealed through natural revelation, then through divine
revelation in time and space," he said.
"It's like God said: ‘Hey,ook up. This is what it is. This is who I am.'"
That was the first Christmas. More than 2,000 years later, the
Ukrainians bring customs of their peasant pasts to their contemporary
The white tablecloth that covers the Christmas Eve table represents an
earth frozen and devoid of life, Repa explained. The straw resting upon
it brings thoughts of the manger.
The festive tablecloth that will cover them both celebrates Jesus and
the people now freed from the chains of sin.
The meal on Christmas Eve begins with a toast and a remembrance — one by
one — of those who have died in the past year.
"Those who were and those who are (still here) are invited," Repa said.
"In Christ, we are one. We are not separated from one another."
And at the repast, the 12 foods that traditionally are served represent
the 12 months, the 12 tribes of Israel, the 12 apostles.
Those foods are wheat; soup; baked, fried or pickled fish; cabbage
rolls; pyrohy with potato, sauerkraut or prune filling; cooked beans;
sauerkraut and peas; mushrooms; stewed dried fruit; pompushky, a dough
with poppy seed, apricot or prune filling; garlic; and honey.
Many of the preserved foods served on Christmas Eve, such as mushrooms,
sauerkraut and peas, have been brought back to life, too, Repa said.
For too many families, there is no church after the Christmas Eve meal,
which, Repa said, is his biggest disappointment.
"What if the shepherds had said: ‘Ah, we're too tired. We'll go in the
On Christmas, the real feast is held, and the celebration continues for
12 days, until Epiphany.
Somehow, he said: "We've gotten everything upside down."
During Advent, the Orthodox deny themselves many foods, while others
enjoy a calendar full of parties. After Christmas, he said, there's more
than enough reason to celebrate for many days.
"The children believe in Santa Claus, and so do I," said the Rev. Robert
Prepelka, pastor of St. John the Baptist Orthodox Church in Ambridge for
the last five years of a 25-year priesthood.
His Carpatho-Rusyn congregation and others of the Orthodox faith
celebrate Santa's giving spirit in the person of St. Nicholas, a
third-century bishop of Myra in Turkey. His feast day for the Orthodox
on Dec. 19 is a day for giving presents.
But as a child, Prepelka remembers having a celebration on Dec. 25 with
a Christmas tree and presents. The date was close enough to St. Nicholas
Day, and the United States was the melting pot, he explained.
On Orthodox Christmas Eve, the father anoints the forehead of those
present and sing the main hymn of the day. The meal begins with the
tasting of honey and garlic.
"These things were explained to the children and guests," Prepelka said,
"just like during a (Jewish Passover) seder meal."
Each custom has its spiritual corollary: the breaking of bread
symbolizes how Jesus is the "Bread of Life," he explained.
The pastor described the ‘fasting soup' that is served. It could be
lentil, split pea or mushroom.
"I'm not a mushroom eater," he said, "so I'm not a good Slav."
At church on Christmas Day, there is anointing with oil, sharing of the
blessed bread, carols and a message from the Metropolitan, a regional
"The Divine Liturgy is one beautiful thing after another," Prepelka said.
"The highlight is receiving the Eucharist."