Confession time: I’ve always been fascinated by Orthodox Christmas, but never knew much about it. Aside from being a handy defense for leaving decorations up well into the New Year, I was embarrassingly ignorant about this special celebration and decided it was time to learn.

Having made some friends at St. John the Baptist Orthodox Church in Ambridge during their annual Rusyn Food Festival, I decided to start there. With the help of parishioner Anne Bacher, I was able to connect with Father Robert Prepelka, who took a break from his busy Christmas Eve preparations to help me learn.

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The Basics:

For Orthodox Christians, Christmas Eve is January 6th. The 12 days of Christmas begin on Christmas Day (January 7th) and continue 11 days after that. The celebration ends with the Feast of Theophany (January 18th).

The History:

Orthodox Christmas is celebrated in accordance with the old calendar, known as the Julian calendar, which pre-dates the Gregorian calendar we use today. “There are quite a few other Orthodox people besides our people — the Ukrainians and the Serbians — that still commemorate Christmas according to the old calendar,” Fr. Bob explained. “When Pope Gregory had the astronomers do a study and they realized that the Julian calendar was behind time, he added 10 days to the calendar to make it coincide with the vernal equinox. There are still those of us who still — in fact, in the Holy Land itself, in Bethlehem — celebrate on the old calendar tonight.”

The Traditions:

Christmas Eve is a day of preparation, with a holy supper consisting of 12 strict fasting foods that are served in honor of the 12 disciples.

“Each ethnic group has their own different traditions. Among our people, among the Slavic people, one of the biggest highlights of the day is the traditional holy supper that is served now in the homes before everyone comes to church on Christmas Eve. Tradition has it that when the first star appears in the sky, they would begin the holy supper. And it consists of, traditionally, 12 strict fasting foods. This is still a day of fasting — it’s not a day of celebration. No meat is eaten or any dairy products. That’s all day long today, and then all of the foods that are prepared now for this evening meal are strict fasting foods.”

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The holy supper

“During the holy supper, there’s a traditional rite that’s followed, beginning with the father — being the head of the household — saying a prayer of blessing over the food, especially over the bread. Everyone partakes of a little wine and a little toast is given. We partake of honey and garlic; honey representing the sweet things of life and garlic the bitter things in life. The garlic is usually dipped into the honey to show that because of our faith, the good things in life will mask the bad, the seemingly negative. It’s a recognition of knowing that both will come our way in life, and we accept them both.”

Christmas Eve Dishes

“We have some foods that people recognize: there are usually pyrohi, but they’re made without eggs or butter; a traditional soup made with sauerkraut and mushrooms; others maybe make pea or lentil soup; there are different traditions from village to village. There’s another dish called Pobal’ki, which are little dough balls that are baked — little bread balls that are softened and then mixed with sauerkraut, or some mix them with poppyseed and honey or walnuts, more like dessert dish. And quite often fish is served, different kinds of fish. Fruit is served too — usually a stewed fruit, like prunes and apricots that are cooked in a little bit of sugar and spices, that’s one of the dessert type dishes. So there 12 dishes that are served in honor of the 12 apostles.”

Traditional Folk Carols, Kolad’i

“We have our own Rusyn Christmas carols, they’re called Kolad’i. They are traditional folk carols people sang over there and we still keep that tradition alive by singing some of them in the native language, in the Rusyn language. And then of course we have the English translation and we sing them along with the modern Christmas carols.”

A Period of Preparation to Celebrate the 12 Days of Christmas 

“The thing is, we celebrate the 12 days of Christmas. Unfortunately the world, usually, is celebrating about a month or more before Christmas — but really, the 12 days of Christmas begin tomorrow (Christmas Day, January 7th). Tomorrow’s the first day and then the next day is the second day. The 12 days of Christmas begin on Christmas and continue for 11 days after that. But unfortunately, everything is sort of topsy-turvy in this world today. Everyone’s celebrating Christmas and by the time the day comes it’s like people seem tired of it already and can’t wait to get rid of it. For us it’s been a preparation; this fasting season commonly known as Advent in the west is a period of preparation. It’s not a period of celebration yet.”

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Celebrating the 12 Days of Christmas

“We begin celebrating tonight and tomorrow. The second day of Christmas is in honor of the Virgin Mary herself. And then on Monday, the third day of Christmas, we honor the first martyr of the church, St. Stephen. Tonight is the vigil service, a preparation for tomorrow morning for the actual divine liturgy which is what we call the Eucharistic service in our church. After that, then we break the fast and we all go home to celebrate. That’s when people have their stuffed cabbage or turkey or ham, and of course all kinds of good cakes and pastries. I’ve got about 10 different kinds of cookies baked already myself. Traditional nut rolls and poppyseed rolls, like we sell at our festivals here.”

The Feast of Theophany and the Blessing of Homes

“The 12 days of Christmas end with the Feast of Theophany, quite often called in the West, Epiphany. And that’s when we celebrate our big commemoration that day, which is the baptism of the Lord in the River Jordan. On that day, we have the great blessing of water, where the priest goes around and begins to bless all of his parishioners homes. That’s the other big focal point of this whole season — the blessing of homes.

We bless the homes with holy water. There’s a little service we do, the people prepare for the coming with an icon that’s set out, they’ll put out a nice white cloth, light their candle, and we’ll  do a little service there where the priest takes the newly blessed holy water and goes around the entire house to sprinkle in each room with holy water. When I first got here (to the church) I did about 65, 68 homes. A lot of those people are now in their eternal homes or in nursing homes. Unfortunately, we’re getting smaller all the time here, so I’ll have about 40 to do this year. I’ll go to the nursing homes too, to bless their rooms where they stay and take them the mysteries of holy confession and communion.”

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The Invitation

“We welcome anyone to come and see what we’re about, to pray with us and join in worshipping our God together. Come and see the beauty of everything here, especially when the church is decorated, adorned for Christmas.”

(St. John The Baptist Orthodox Church is located at 450 Glenwood Ave. in Ambridge, near the corner of 5th and Duss. Check out their Facebook page for information on services and upcoming events: http://www.facebook.com/StJohnTheBaptistOrthodoxChurch).

The People

I’ve written about the wonderful community of people at St. John’s before. Father Bob, who has been a priest for 30 years, just had his 10th anniversary with the parish. He took time away from his Christmas Eve preparations — both to lead the vigil service, and to host a dinner for 10 people, family and members of the church — to educate me on their traditions and invite me to witness the beauty of the church at Christmastime. The service was very moving, something you could find meaningful even if you’re not a believer. The folk hymns sung in the Rusyn language, the warm glow of the candles and Christmas lights, and the stunning interior of the church made you feel as though you’d entered another world. The old world, where tradition is alive and well.

Do you celebrate Orthodox Christmas on the old calendar? Does your church or family have any special traditions? I’d love to write about them! Share them in the comments here, or email me at rustbeltmayberry@gmail.com

Erin Ninehouser loves photography for its ability to reveal truths and insights that are often too difficult to capture with words. She believes, as Garrison Keillor says through his troubled yet triumphant character Barbara in Pontoon, that “the only sermon that counts is the one formed by our actions.” A native of New Castle, Erin has made her home in Ambridge where she lives happily with her wonderful husband Dave, their three adorable and hilarious cats, and their “old gentleman” dog, Max. Erin is excited to help tell the stories of the people of Beaver County. You can see more of her work on Facebook and connect on Instagram or Twitter.