On the night of December 24 to December 25, the Christians of Western Rite Orthodoxy (mostly Catholic and Protestants), including many Ukrainians, start to celebrate the bright holiday of Feast of the Nativity or Christmas – one of the most important Christian holidays established to commemorate the birth of Jesus Christ by Virgin Mary.
The history of the establishment of a holiday
In Christianity, from the end of the II century until the IV century, the Feast of the Nativity was mentioned on Epiphany – January 6. About 200 AD such an order was described by Clement of Alexandria.
Firstly, the mentioning of the Christmas holiday and its celebration on December 25 occurred in the middle of the IV century.
Particularly, the Gospels of Matthew and Luke stated that the rising of the first evening star on the night of December 25 marked the birth of the Son of God.
The details of this event are provided:
In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. And everyone went to their own town to register.
So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child.
While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger because there was no guest room available for them.
The shepherds were the first to worship Jesus, notified about the birth of a Savior by an angel. Then the wise men arrived guided by the mentioned star. They presented Jesus with gifts – gold, frankincense and myrrh; not as children but as Lord.
Thus, the date of the celebration of Christmas was established on December 25 in 431 AD at the Council of Ephesus.
Despite the fact that the idea of Christmas is similar for both Christians of Western Rite Orthodoxy and Eastern Christians, the traditions of its celebration are slightly different. The difference lies not only on the date of the holiday.
The celebration of Christmas in the liturgical calendar of Western Christianity is preceded by a special period of time – Advent. It starts four Sundays before Christmas. This year it has started on November 29.
Earlier, during this period of time, Catholic people and some Protestants followed strict fasting; however, modern rules do not dictate it – Advent considered to be time given to a person not for fasting but for intense penitence.
The church recommends using this time for the sacrament of confession, reflection on the coming of Jesus not only on Christmas but also on the Second Coming.
The divine service of each Sunday of Advent has a particular theme: the first divine service is dedicated to the coming of Jesus at the end of time; the second and the third reflect the transition from the Old Testament to the New Testament; the fourth service is dedicated to the gospel events preceding Christmas.
Besides, these events are tied with some other traditions.
Probably, you have already seen something like that at supermarkets. It is a typical decoration in the form of a wreath made of branches of pine, spruce, or fir. It is usually put on walls or doors of the houses, tables, or windowsills.
Four candles are usually put on the wreath. The first of them is lit on the first Sunday of Advent; the second is lit on the second Sunday and so on. The addition of the light on the wreath symbolizes the growing expectation of the birth of Jesus but later extra meanings were added to the wreath and they were grounded by round shape, the symbolism of the wreath, green of spruce, the color of candles and decorative ribbons.
Today, the Christmas wreath with four candles is associated with the earth and four cardinal directions; the circle symbolizes eternal life given by the Resurrection; green is the color of life; the candles are light that will illuminate the world on Christmas.
The second irreplaceable attribute during Advent is the Advent calendar – a special calendar that indicates the time remaining before the Christmas holiday.
Usually, such calendars are made in the form of postcards or cardboard houses with the opening small windows; each of the windows contains a candy, note with wishes, extracts from scriptures, or small gifts. The content of the advent calendar depends on each particular family or the purpose of the calendar.
The calendar consists of 24 days, counting from December 1 until December 24 when Christmas is celebrated in the Gregorian calendar.
During Advent, the Christians of Western Rite Orthodoxy also put the Christmas trees at homes and decorate it with children’s crafts in the form of lanterns, hearts, or purchased toys. At the top of the tree, people put the star as a reminder of the star of Bethlehem.
Usually, the Christmas tree is placed in the center of the living room, not far from the fireplace decorated with big socks on the number of family members. Later, Santa Claus will put the present in these socks and under the Christmas tree.
Cribs of Jesus
One more tradition of the Advent is the installation of the cribs or the so-called nativity scene. They are needed to restore the events of the birth of Jesus on the holiday in the family circle or with friends.
It is considered that during the playing of the nativity scene Bethlehem enters houses and churches and becomes closer and clearer this day.
Traditions on the eve of Christmas
Advent traditionally ends with Christmas Eve. The day before Christmas (December 24) is usually called in such a way.
The main peculiarity of this day is strict fasting. Earlier, it was allowed to eat the only lentil – the grain of barley or wheat boiled in water and later honey is added to it.
Over time, the menu extended and other fasting dishes appeared on the Christmas table. Apples, vegetable salads, and other vegetables, honey, raisins, nuts, celery should be put on the table as they are the symbols of good luck, wealth, and health.
Fish is the required dish on the festive table.
Besides, people can confess on Christmas Eve if they could not do it earlier. The church is opened since the early morning on this day and it does not close.
Celebration of Christmas
On Christmas day, the churches service three special liturgies – midnight mass, mass at dawn and mass during day.
Besides, on the night of December 25, the Christians of Western Rite Orthodoxy are visited by Santa Claus.
Usually, children leave a glass of milk and almond biscuits for Santa as it is his favorite food and he should be provided with food after a long road.
At night, when children sleep, the parents open the window, bite biscuits, and take a sip of milk.
In the morning, firstly, a child checks whether or not Santa Claus visited the house. If biscuits are bitten and the milk is drunk, it means that a child can come to the Christmas tree for presents and check the socks for candies and fruit.
Besides, the birth of Jesus is played this day and special cribs installed for this purpose.
In the evening, usually, the family gathers for the second Christmas feast. This time, a variety of dishes is put on the table; while roasted turkey or goose considered to be the main dish.
One empty seat is left at the Christmas table – every person who comes this evening is a welcome and an honored guest.
Besides, this evening, people sing carols wishing the best things and wealth.
The Octave of Christmas
Besides, the Christmas holiday does not end on December 25 – it is celebrated for eight days. From December 25 until January 1. During this period of time, Catholic people and some Protestants remember all saints and it is called the Octave of Christmas.
Particularly, on December 26, the Christians of Western Rite Orthodoxy celebrates St. Stephen holiday, on December 27 – St. John the Evangelist, on December 28 - the Holy Innocents.
On Sunday, from December 26 up to December 31 or December 30, if these days are not Sundays, people celebrate the Holy Family holiday.
On January 1, people celebrate the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God.