Just as the holiday festivities begin winding down for many Christians, Saint Nicholas Serbian Orthodox Church in Monroeville is putting up trees and preparing Christmas hymns. Southwestern Pennsylvania is home to dozens of orthodox parishes including Saint Nicholas, many of which follow a different liturgical calendar that places Christmas on January 7th.
“It originally was not a different date,” explained Anna Poshyvjlo, pastor’s wife at Saint Michael Eastern Orthodox Church in Curtisville, Allegheny County. Poshyvijlo explained that churches from Eastern Europe still follow the ancient Julian calendar, which lags behind the more modern Gregorian calendar. According to the Julian system, January 7th is actually December 25th.
According to Poshyvjlo, there are strong similarities between the Nativity celebrations of different orthodox parishes, but each ethnicity adds its own touches. At Saint Michael, the festivities begin December 6th, with each family holding a “Holy Supper” in their homes. The meal consists of 12 special foods, including borscht and pierogi. The celebration varies, depending on family origins. Western Ukrainians add a boiled dough dish called “bobalki” to the meal. This is followed by the “Grand Compliance,” an evening service “which consists of a blessing of five loaves of bread, wheat, wine, and oil,” says Poshyvjlo.
At Saint Nicholas, the celebration begins tonight with a Yule log ceremony, says pastor Reverend D.C. Malich. The yule log is a branch cut from a young oak tree which was traditionally burned in every Serbian hearth to prepare for Christmas. Since many homes no longer have fireplaces, Saint Nicholas parishioners come together at their church for the ritual. Hymns are sung and straw is given to families, who place it on their floors and tables to symbolize the stable in which Christ was born.
Another Serbian Christmas tradition is “Chesnica,” a round loaf of bread with a coin baked inside, said Malich. The loaf is rotated several times at family tables on Christmas day, and then broken into several pieces, one for each person. “The person that finds the coin in their part is supposed to have good blessings and good luck for that year,”Malich explained.
Many Orthodox Christians have been fasting and praying to prepare for Christmas since late November.
“During this fasting period, no parties are supposed to take place, or so on. It’s a solemn time of fasting, of increased prayers, of good deeds, and preparing for a big holiday,” Malich said.
According to Poshyvjlo, there is less focus on gift-giving. In the Slavic tradition, gifts are given on December 19th, the feast of Saint Nicholas.
“December 25th is really, like, the Christmas is very commercialized. It’s business. It’s this and that and so forth. January 7th is actually spiritual celebration,” Poshyvjlo said.
Not all Orthodox churches celebrate Christmas the same way, or even on the same day. For example, many have even changed to the Gregorian calendar, while the Armenian Church celebrates Christmas on January 18th. However, Poshyvjlo thinks the differences do not really matter.
“The time when Christ was born, according to many scholars, is really in the spring. So it’s not important when it’s celebrated but that it is celebrated. That’s what’s important.”