Old Christmas: Orthodox Christians flavor Feast of the Nativity with tradition
Old Christmas: Orthodox Christians flavor Feast of the Nativity with
Published: Friday, January 06, 2012, 5:18 AM
By Kay Campbell, The Huntsville Times
HUNTSVILLE, Alabama -- To remember the stable where Jesus was born,
tonight the congregation of St. Michael the Archangel Orthodox Church
will be eating on white linen tablecloths spread over straw sprinkled on
the tables during their celebration of the Feast of the Nativity, which
Eastern Christians celebrate this weekend.
To remember the 12 disciples, in the Holy Supper traditions of Russian
Orthodox Christians, they will eat 12 traditional dishes that include
beet salad, borscht, boiled potatoes with onions, wheat berries cooked
with poppy seeds, honey and raisins for good fortune, traditional
sauerkraut dumplings called “piroshki” in Russian, and stewed dried fruits.
Some fried fish will be the only meat allowed, as Orthodox Christians
observe a diet without any other meat or dairy products for the 40 days
of the Christmas Lent.
But the course that always gets the most comments, said Helen Bergantz,
who is helping to coordinate the Holy Supper that will follow tonight’s
Vespers service, is the first one: raw cloves of garlic dipped into honey.
“And you want a lot of honey,” Bergantz said Wednesday, demonstrating
how the sleek white fingers of garlic can scoop up a glistening bulb of
“Everyone eats it – and then everyone goes, ‘Oh!’”
Sweet over bitter
And like many of the rituals and traditions of Orthodox Christians, this
one goes way back, said Bergantz, whose grandparents immigrated to the
U.S. from Russia.
“This symbolizes the prayer that the bitter events in life will be
overcome by the sweetness from God of faith, hope and love,” Bergantz said.
Some members of St. Michael’s were born into Orthodox beliefs. Others,
including the parish priest, Father Gregory Schultz, were attracted by
the historic nature of Orthodox ritual and teachings.
“During the Vespers, some of the prayers date to the first century, and
we will be singing a hymn that was used at least as early as the sixth
century,” Schultz said. “There is so much rich tradition and history I
didn’t know about as a kid.”
The Orthodox teachings go back to the earliest days of Christianity,
when the Church was organized under Patriarchs in Jerusalem and Antioch
and then Alexandria, Constantinople and Rome. When the Pope began
consolidating influence to Rome in about 1000, many Eastern Christians
objected, and the churches officially split in 1054, a dividing of the
ways that has even seen armed combat among the divisions.
The date of Christmas is among the remnants of that divide: Western
Christians, following the Gregorian Calendar established in 1582 by
Roman Catholic Pope Gregory XIII, celebrate the Mass of Christ’s birth
on Dec. 25 each year. Eastern Christians, who follow the more ancient
Julian Calendar for religious dates, observe the Feast of the Nativity
on Jan. 7 (sic) and Epiphany for remembering the visit of the Wise Men
to the baby Jesus on Jan. 8 (sic). The Julian Calendar, after all, would
have been the one in effect when Jesus was born.
The discrepancy between Dec. 25 and Jan. 6 has worked out for her
family, Bergantz said, because it’s helped them separate the more
commercialized aspects of the winter holidays from the holy days of
“Most priests don’t celebrate Dec. 25 at all, but in our family, we had
Santa Claus on Dec. 25 and kept Jan. 6 and 7 as holy days,” Bergantz said.
But people from all backgrounds are welcome to join the congregation
during their services and during the Holy Supper itself, Bergantz said.
After all, one of the traditions of Holy Supper is that an extra place
is set for Jesus or for the stranger.
“And there is always lots of food,” she said, and plenty of garlic and
honey for seconds, should anyone want them.
The Feast of the Nativity is this weekend, according to the Julian
Calendar observed by Orthodox (sic) and Coptic Christians.
St. Michael Orthodox Church (services in English), 4319 Spartacus Drive
in Huntsville, will have services today, Jan. 6, 2012, with Royal Hours
from 9-11 a.m. and Christmas Eve Vespers tonight at 6 p.m. followed by
traditional Russian Holy Supper at about 7 p.m. Christmas Divine Liturgy
is Saturday at 10 a.m.
Holy Cross-Sts. Constantine and Helen Greek Orthodox Church (services in
Greek), 3021 University Drive in Huntsville, will celebrate Epiphany
today at 9:30 a.m. and Christmas Divine Liturgy on Sunday with Matins at
9 a.m. and Liturgy at 10 a.m.