Christmas: 2 billion Christians celebrate Jesus’s birth

“Fear not for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior; which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you: You shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.”
Luke 2:11-12

Interior of ornate cathedral softly lit, crowd before towering Christmas tree and star and altar

Christmas service in Hamburg, Germany. Photo by Andi Graf, courtesy of Pixabay

FRIDAY, DECEMBER 25: Today is celebrated as Christmas by the vast majority of the world’s 2 billion Christians—including many Orthodox Christians in the U.S. who refer to the holiday as the Nativity. However, some Christians around the world still mark Christmas according to earlier versions of global calendars, pushing many Russian, Ukrainian and Serbian churches to a January 7 celebration. Latest of all, each year, there’s even an ancient Armenian Christmas liturgy in the town of Bethlehem as late as January 18 and 19.

While the birth year of Jesus is only speculated, December 25 is embraced by a multitude of Christians worldwide as the day Mary and Joseph knelt beside their newborn son in a manger. On Christmas Day in most of the Church, the season of Advent closes for Western Christians; the Nativity Fast ends for Eastern Christians; and the 12 days of Christmastide begin. In many countries, Christmas Day is a public holiday.

ORTHODOX CUSTOMS

About half of Eastern Orthodox churches celebrate Christmas with Western Christians on December 25. That list includes the Orthodox churches in Bulgaria, Greece, Romania, Antioch, Constantinople, Alexandria, Albania, Cyprus and Finland—as well as the Orthodox Church in America.

Celebrating in January—for a variety of traditional reasons—are Orthodox churches in Russia, Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova, Serbia, Armenia, Egypt and Ethiopia. Mainly this variance involves the older Julian calendar, which pushes Christmas to January 7, but further wrinkles in the tradition affect some Armenians, Copts and Ethiopians. The very last Eastern Christmas will be celebrated by the Armenians living in Jerusalem, who travel to Bethlehem for an hours-long, centuries-old liturgy in the Church of the Nativity.

CHRISTMAS HISTORY

The Chronography of 354 AD is the oldest surviving reference to a Roman celebration for the birth of Jesus on December 25; in the East, the birth of Jesus was already observed with the Epiphany, on January 6. In the Early Middle Ages, Christmas Day was outshone by Epiphany, though by the later medieval period, Christmas-related holidays were starting to become more popular.

From the formative years of the Church’s celebrations to the Nativity noted today, a multitude of customs have become associated with Christmas: displaying manger scenes, caroling, sending greetings and hanging stockings by a fireplace, to name just a few. Certain saints have been responsible for creating some of the customs—namely, St. Francis of Assisi for the nativity scene, and St. Nicholas for stockings and candy canes—while others are secular or even pre-Christian.

Christmas encountered turbulence through the 17th and 18th centuries, but by the 19th century, writers such as Charles Dickens were creating the “heartfelt goodwill” that morphed Christmas into a more secular holiday based on goodwill, family and jollity. (Wikipedia has details.) For billions around the globe, Christmas today includes cookies, gift giving, shared feasts, cherished stories and songs and festive decorations.

Illustration of manger scene with light from above shining on baby Jesus

Photo by Travis, courtesy of Flickr

JESUS:
THE BIRTH OF A SAVIOR

Christians believe the birth of Jesus to Mary fulfills an ancient Messianic prophesy. Two canonical gospels record Jesus as having been born to Mary and her husband, Joseph, in the city of Bethlehem. Tradition tells that the birth took place in a stable, because “there was no room for them in the inn.” Nearby shepherds, told of the birth by angels, came to see the baby; magi came later, bearing gifts for the baby Jesus. (Find answers for Orthodox Christian questions at the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America; access Catholic answers at American Catholic.) The Star of Bethlehem is believed to have led the magi to Jesus, and the visit of the magi is celebrated as Epiphany, on January 6.

RECIPES & MORE

The Christmas pudding cooked on Stir-up Sunday is still traditionally served in some countries, but for others, Christmas today is more about cookies and peppermint sweets than old-fashioned fruitcakes and puddings. Interested to learn more?

From Martha Stewart, try baking something beautiful.

From Rachael Ray or Food Network, find an array of professional recipes.

From AllRecipes, gather favored suggestions for dinner, breakfast and dessert.

From Food & Wine, cook up something fancy or unique.

IN THE NEWS

ROCCA ON DICKENS—CBS correspondent Mo Rocca takes us to England for a “tour” of Charles Dickens’ famous tale,  A Christmas Carol. It’s a fun overview for Dickens fans.

NO WHITE CHRISTMAS—Forecasters are united in predicting that the majority of the continental United States won’t see snow on the holiday. Here’s an NBC version of that report.

POPE FRANCIS—Displaying his now world-famous optimism, Pope Francis is making headlines for insisting that he make all of his Christmas-season appearances, despite threats of terrorism. In a talk on December 20, he reminded the world that the Christmas story includes God’s call to compassion for the world’s poorest families. He wasn’t alone. “Jesus himself was a refugee,” Cokie and Steve Roberts reminded readers in this news story.

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Ecclesiastical New Year: Orthodox Christians reflect on cycle of the Church

Painting of workers gathering hay and grains at harvest time

In ancient society, harvest time was a season for reflection, gratitude and the start of a New Year. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 1: A convergence of historical and biblical events places the Orthodox Christian Ecclesiastical New Year on September 1—a tradition dating back through the millennia. In an ancient agricultural society, harvest season meant gratitude and the recognition of divine blessings. Prior to the advent of the Julian calendar, Rome began its New Year on Sept. 1. Christian leaders also say that, based on the biblical record, Jesus Christ entered the synagogue on Sept. 1 to announce his mission. Today, Orthodox Christians use the New Year period to reflect and pray. (Learn more from the Orthodox Church in America). Some adherents recommit themselves to their faith, while others contemplate the New Year to come.

As the annual cycle of saint days, feasts, fasting periods, commemorations and more begins, the faithful examine the Orthodox Christian year. Through specific days and dedications, adherents can take the opportunity to consider people and events critical to the Church.

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Pascha: Eastern Orthodox Christians revel in the Resurrection

Priests in vestments with children

A Pascha party in Amsterdam, 2009. Photo by Jim Forest, courtesy of Flickr

SUNDAY, APRIL 12: The Great and Holy Feast of Pascha brings the ultimate joy of the Resurrection of Christ to the Eastern Orthodox Christian Church, in the most significant day of the year. From an Orthodox perspective: It is the feast of feasts; it is the fundamental truth of the Christian faith; it is Christ’s victory over death.

For Orthodox Christians following the Julian calendar, today’s Pascha confirms the truth of Christ’s teachings. The Resurrection, it is believed, proclaims God’s plan, the divination of man and the order of the universe.

PASCHA: AN ODE TO JOY

Before midnight on Saturday, the Odes of Lamentation are repeated; a celebrant approaches a temporary tomb, and the winding-sheet is removed from it. The Orthros of Resurrection begins in darkness. Hymns are sung and, in most churches, the priest leads congregation members outside, where the Gospel is read. (Find details at Orthodox Church in America.) Before reentering the church, the priest announces the resurrection of Christ. When the priest begins the hymn of Resurrection, the Easter service takes on a full festal tone. Back inside, the Easter Matins service is sung in its entirety.

The Pascha icon shines at the center of the church—the image of Christ destroying the gates of hell and freeing Adam and Eve from the captivity of death. Congregants proclaim: “Christ is risen!” As the Easter Matins comes to a close, the Easter Hours are sung, followed by the proclamation of the Paschal Sermon of St. John Chrysostom. (Learn more from the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.) The sermon invites everyone, young and old, to forget their sins and to join in the feast of the resurrection of Christ.

PASCHA: A FORM OF ‘PASSOVER’

While the Western term for the Resurrection celebration, Easter, is more widely accepted in the West, Eastern Orthodox Christians often point out that the term Pascha more accurately describes the events of Christ’s life, death and rising. While Easter is most likely derived from Ostara, an ancient Pagan springtime festival, Pascha is translated from Greek as “Passover.” Pascha describes the Jewish festival of Passover, as well as Christ as the paschal lamb.

Tomorrow, the Monday following Pascha, is known as Bright Monday, and the remainder of the week is Bright Week. Throughout Bright Week, services are similar to those of Pascha.

Wondering what Pascha is like in Greece? Read the colorful, vibrant details of a childhood in Lefkada, as penned by a writer for the Huffington Post.

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Meatfare Sunday: Orthodox Christians eliminate meat & look to Great Lent

Hand and fork jabbing at white meat poultry on plate of food

After Meatfare Sunday, Orthodox Christians do not consume meat until Pascha (Easter). Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 15: Lent is on the horizon for the world’s 2 billion Christians, and today, Eastern Orthodox churches take gradual steps into the Lenten fast with Meatfare Sunday. After Meatfare Sunday, no meat may be consumed until Pascha (Easter); in one week, Cheesefare Sunday will discontinue the partaking of dairy products until Pascha. For Orthodox Christians, Great Lent begins on Clean Monday—this year, February 23.

Though commonly referred to as Meatfare Sunday, this third Sunday of the Triodion Period is more formally known as the Sunday of the Last Judgment. In services, emphasis is placed on the Second Coming and Last Judgment—a time when Christ, in Matthew, refers to coming in glory with the angels to judge the living and the dead. (Learn more from the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.) While the opportunity exists, the faithful are encouraged to repent. The parable of the Last Judgment points out that Christ will judge on love: How well one has shared God’s love, and how deeply one has cared for others.

On the Saturday prior to Meatfare Sunday and on the two Saturdays following, a liturgy and memorial service is held for the faithful departed. These days are known as the Saturdays of the Souls.

Interested in some delicious new meat recipes for this final opportunity ? Find recipes at Allrecipes, Cooking Light and Food & Wine.

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Nativity of Christ: Orthodox Christians on Julian calendar observe Christmas

Nighttime with lit old architecture in background crowd of people clapping hands and singing

Coptic Christians from Eritrea and Ethiopia at an Orthodox Christmas celebration at the Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem, January 2012. Photo by Ridvan Yumlu, courtesy of Flickr

WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 7: Cathedral bells ring in Christmas Day across Russia and in several Orthodox Christian communities worldwide, as those who follow the Julian calendar observe the Nativity of Christ. For the Orthodox churches that follow the Julian calendar, the calendar created under the reign of Julius Caesar in 45 BCE ushers in Christmas on what most of the world views as January 7. From the Patriarch of Russia (who sent greetings to non-Orthodox churches on December 25) to Orthodox communities in Jerusalem, Serbia and Poland, elaborate services will usher in Christmas Day.

Having fasted in preparation for 40 days, it is with overwhelming joy that these Orthodox Christians approach the Nativity of Christ.

For Orthodox Christians, the feast of Christmas is officially called the Nativity in the Flesh of our Lord and God and Saviour Jesus Christ. Services begin on the morning of Christmas Eve with readings of prophesies in the Bible; a fast is kept until sunset, and when the first star appears in the evening, a distinctive meal is consumed. The Christmas Eve evening meal, sometimes referred to as the Holy Night Supper, may consist of 12 vegan dishes—one for each Apostle. After the food has been partaken in, carols are sung and blessings are recited. (Learn more from the Orthodox Church in America.)

Additional services continue on Christmas Eve and throughout Christmas Day. The following day, Dec. 26, is occasion for honoring the Virgin Mary as the mother of God. Church services on this day are devoted to Mary, as part of the Nativity.

Recent studies in Russia have shown that only 6 percent of Russians had planned to celebrate Christmas on December 25, and that approximately 87 percent of Orthodox believers—72 percent of the general population—will mark Christmas on January 7. According to polls, most celebrants will observe Christmas with their families, at home. (Tass Russian News Agency has the story.) This year, however, Russian President Vladimir Putin banned government officials from taking a lengthy holiday for Christmas, stating that the paid time for employees cannot be afforded. (Read more from Yahoo! Finance.) While Russian companies and government officials are typically permitted time off between January 1 and 12, many will be limited to keeping Christmas celebrations within a couple of days.

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Nativity Fast: Eastern Christians prepare for birth of Jesus Christ

Cathedral building of light browns and beige colors, ornate with dome tops and Orthodox crosses, on sunny day

Nativity of Christ (Orthodox) Cathedral in Riga, Latvia. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 15: Preparations for Jesus’s birth begin in the Orthodox Christian Church as adherents begin the 40-day Nativity Fast.

The faithful are supposed to undertake this challenging tradition with joy and in a spirit of earnest anticipation. By fasting, Orthodox Christians embrace their own humanity and, at the same time, the moment at which God became human, according to Orthodox teaching.

The Nativity Fast is divided into two periods: November 15-December 19, and December 20-24. Both fasting periods follow the traditional fasting discipline (without meat, dairy, fish, wine or oil), but each also allows for fish, wine and oil on specific days. Several other holidays will fall within the Nativity Fast, such as St. Andrew’s Day, St. Nicholas Day, the Sunday of the Forefathers and the Sunday of the Fathers. (Wikipedia has details.)

Orthodox theology holds that bodily fasting ultimately influences the soul. During the Nativity Fast, the faithful turn away from worldly desires and toward God. The fasting includes not only bodily abstinence, but also fasting from negative emotions, hatred and greed. Prayer and almsgiving are a major part of the spiritual discipline. (Learn more from Orthodox Church in America.)

Note: The Nativity Fast is observed November 15-December 24 in the Gregorian calendar and the Revised Julian calendar. Followers of the Julian calendar, which is currently 13 days behind the Gregorian, will begin the fast on November 28 of the Gregorian calendar.

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Eastern and Western Christians observe Birth of Mary, Nativity of Theotokos

“It’s Blessed Virgin’s Birthday,
The swallows do depart;
Far to the South they fly away,
And sadness fills my heart.
But after snow and ice and rain
They will in March return again.”
An Austrian children’s rhyme, for September 8

Painting of women in fancy room, gathered around woman with young baby, one woman pouring water into a bowl

Birth of Mary, by Domenico Ghirlandaio, c. 1486-1490 CE. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 8: Most of the world’s 2 billion Christians rejoice today in recalling the birth of Mary. In traditional Catholic and Orthodox teaching, Mary is regarded as a figure foretold in passages as ancient as Genesis. And this holiday is known as the Birth of the Virgin Mary among Western Christians, as well as the Nativity of the Theotokos among Eastern Christians.

Though the Bible contains no record of Mary’s birth, the Protoevangelium of James—an apocryphal writing from the second century—describes Mary’s birth, as well as the story of her parents, St. Anne and St. Joachim. (Learn more from Catholic Culture and Fish Eaters.) Accounts detail that St. Anne and St. Joachim, though faithful and pious, were without children. Anne and Joachim prayed for a child; though older, they conceived a child, whom they would call Mary. Tradition tells that Mary was born in Jerusalem.

Did you know? The birth of Mary also is included in the Quran. She is a major figure in Islam. (Wikipedia has more about Mary in Islam.)

The feast for Mary’s Nativity originated in Jerusalem, in the fifth century, and records point next to Syria and other parts of ancient Palestine, both of which were observing a feast for Mary’s birth by the sixth century. By the end of the seventh century, the feast was accepted by the Roman Church, and it slowly spread through Europe. By the 12th century, Mary’s birth was observed in all Christian countries. (Get the Eastern Orthodox perspective from Orthodox Church in America and the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.)

The Christian Church marks most saints’ feasts on the date of their death, or return to God. To this rule, there are three exceptions: Mary, Jesus and John the Baptist, as they are recognized in the Church on both their death date and their birth date.

OUR LADY OF THE GRAPE HARVEST,
‘DOWN-DRIVING’ & THANKSGIVING

In the wine-growing regions of France, Mary’s birthday is affectionately called “Our Lady of the Grape Harvest,” when the best grapes are brought to the local church for blessings and bunches of grapes are tied onto the hands of Mary statues. In the Alps, September 8 begins “down-driving,” when cattle and sheep are led from their summer pastures, down the mountain slopes, to their winter residence in the valleys and stables. In several regions of central and eastern Europe, the Feast of Mary is associated with harvest, fall planting and thanksgiving.

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