NATIVITY OF OUR LORD
A time of preparation for the Feast of the Nativity of our Lord begins on November 14, the Feast of St. Philip. This fast period became known as the Philipian Fast or “Pylypivka” because of its association with the Feast of St. Philip.
The Nativity of Our Lord is celebrated after the Winter Solstice when the days are becoming longer and the sun is becoming stronger. This symbolizes, for us, the coming of the Light of Christ into our darkened world.
Christians substituted the Son of God for the sun god. Christ began to be called the “Sun of Truth” or the “Sun of Justice”. In some translations, Christ is called the “Orient” (meaning East) because the sun rises in the East.
The Nativity of Our Lord and Theophany were, at one time, both celebrated on the same day—January 6th. In about 354, Pope Julius I switched the date of the Nativity to December 25th to counteract the pagan Roman celebration of the sun god.
THE READINGS OF VESPERS
The Royal Hours are really where this Feast begins. “The mystery hidden for ages and generations, but now made manifest to the saints,” as St. Paul wrote in his letter to the Colossians (1:26). All creation shares in giving thanks.
“Then angels offer You a hymn; the heavens, a star; the Magi, gifts; the shepherds, their wonder; the earth, its cave; the wilderness, the animals; and we offer You a Virgin Mother.”
The first reading is from Genesis (1:1-13). It reminds us of God’s creation of the world, the light, the heavens, the dry land, the seas, the plants, the creatures, and finally, humans. God saw that it was good. The next passage from Numbers (24:2-3, 5-9, 17-18) needs some explanation. Balack, king of Moab, asked the prophet Balaam to curse the Israelites, so that he could defeat them in battle. However, Balaam blessed Israel and prophesied the coming of the Messiah. The prophecy of Micah 4:6-7 and 5:2-4 is read again, foretelling Bethlehem as the birthplace of the Messiah.
There follow passages of Scripture from Isaiah, Jeremiah and Daniel.
Isaiah 11:1-10 prophesizes the coming of the Messiah, on whom the Spirit of the Lord rests. All creation shall be restored to peace through His coming. The Messiah shall come from the House of Jesse, father of David, the king. Isaiah also writes: “Unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given”, and the earlier reading of the prophecy, “Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a Son and shall call Him Emmanuel [God is with us].”
THE READINGS FOR LITURGY
“Today, He who knows no beginning now begins to be and the Word is made flesh”, as John the Monk has said. He and Germanos and Anatolios, all turn the words of Holy Scripture into hymns of joy for the coming of Christ our God into the world and the beginning of our salvation. Instead of the trisagion, we sing: “All you who have been baptized into Christ, have put on Christ. Alleluia!”
For, as St. Paul tells us in the Epistle to the Galatians, we “receive the adoption of sons and daughters” and “if sons and daughters then heirs of God, through Christ.”
We hear in the Gospel of Matthew (2:1-12) how the Magi came to worship Christ the eternal God who is come among us, the Light in the darkness of the darkest days,, Who has guided them from afar, the Sun of Righteousness. We, too, come to worship Him, and not only on this day of great festivity. Whenever we come to the Liturgy, we come to the mystery of the Incarnation. The angel Gabriel said to Mary:
“The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore, the child to be born shall be called holy, the Son of God “ (Luke 1:35).
In the Liturgy the priest and the people pray:
“Send down Your Holy Spirit upon us, and upon these gifts set forth.”
“And make this bread the precious Body of Your Christ.”
“And that which is in this chalice the precious Blood of Your Christ.”
“Changing them by Your Holy Spirit.”
“Amen. Amen. Amen.”
In every Liturgy, the coming of Christ into the world is renewed. We come to offer Him our love, our worship, our praise. We live in His presence. We receive His life. He is with us. He is in us.
TROPAR (Tone 4)
Your birth, O Christ our God, * has shed upon the world the light of knowledge, * for through it, those who worshipped the stars * have learned from a star to worship You, the Sun of Justice, * and to recognize You as the Orient from on high. * Glory be to You, O Lord!
KONDAK (Tone 3)
Today the Virgin gives birth to Perfect Essence, * and the earth offers a cave to the Inaccessible. * The angels sing His glory with the shepherds, * the wise men journey with the star, * for there is born for us an infant child, God Eternal.
The Icon of the Nativity of Our Lord is divided into 9 sections. The upper three sections represent the Heavenly realm and included in this section are the angels and the star.
The next three sections represent the earthly players in this drama. We see the Magi from the East who followed the star and who represent those people who believe after much study and journeying.
We see the shepherds who are simple, everyday people who believe the words of the Angel.
Finally, we see Mary, the Mother of God and her newborn Son. Mary is robed in red, the colour of life, the colour of blood. On her veil are the three stars of Virginity. The stars symbolize the belief that Mary was a virgin before the Birth of Christ, during the Birth of Christ and after the Birth of Christ. Mary is reclining, having finished her appointed role by giving birth to Christ. She looks towards Joseph with sympathy because he still struggles to believe that his son is truly the Son of God.
The Animals in the cave represent all of creation present at the Nativity and part of God’s plan of salvation.
The Child is wrapped in swaddling cloths, similar to the burial cloths. This symbolizes Christ’s destiny. Not only did He come to earth and be born as a baby, but He would eventually suffer, die and rise from the dead to complete God’s plan of salvation.
The pure white of Christ’s swaddling cloths stand out against the blackness of the cave. Christ comes into the darkness of the world to bring the Light of God.
In the bottom left-hand corner, Joseph sits looking rather bewildered. An old man is talking to him. Some accounts say this is the devil that is trying to tempt Joseph into believing that Mary was unfaithful. Others say that the old man is a prophet of old teaching Joseph that what has happened is God’s will.
In the bottom right-hand corner, two handmaids are washing Jesus. This signifies that Christ was truly human and truly divine.
The tree in the middle of these two scenes is symbolic of the prophecy that the Messiah will come from the root of Jesse, King David’s father. It is also symbolic of the Tree of Life from the Garden of Eden. This new Tree of Life is the Cross that Jesus will die on for our salvation.
THEMES OF THE FEAST
The first theme we celebrate is the incredible truth that God is with us. During the Royal Hours we sing repeatedly “God is with us, understand all you nations and be humbled for God is with us.” God’s promise to His people, to us, that God would remain with us forever, that He would be our God and we would be His people is fulfilled. The fears and the darkness we face in this world are overcome by God’s presence in our lives.
The second theme we celebrate is the Incarnation of God. God loves us so much; He took on human flesh. That love of God for us is not without a price. God shows us how to sacrifice. St. Paul in his letter to the Philippians wrote: Christ was truly God. But he did not try to remain equal with God. He gave up everything and became a slave, when he became like one of us (Philippians 2:6-7).
Finally, we celebrate the Heavenly Joy. God’s plan of salvation is coming to fulfillment. The birth of Jesus Christ, fully human and fully divine, reveals God’s plan for us. With the Angels, we rejoice at the love of God for humanity and we pray in gratitude that God sends His Light into our world.
UKRAINIAN CHRISTMAS TRADITIONS
Ukrainian Christmas Eve traditions are steeped in symbolism. The day itself was designated a fast day in remembrance of the hardships that Mary endured as she and Joseph traveled to Bethlehem. All preparations, both spiritual and physical, during the season of Pylypivka lead up to this Holy night. The final day of the Christmas fast was a day of anticipation. All day there was much to do before the special supper, “Sviata Vechera”.
In Ukraine, and among those who lived on farms in Canada, care was taken that all animals were fed and given fresh, soft hay. Some of the special foods that were to be eaten that night were saved for the animals also. The animals were treated specially on this night because animals had shared their place of shelter, the stable, with the Holy Family, and had given up their manger for the newborn Christ to sleep in.
In the house, the table and the room were prepared. Hay was strewn under the table and under the tablecloth as a reminder of the humble place of Christ’s birth. A white or embroidered tablecloth was spread on the table and a “kolach” (a braided bread) was placed in the centre. A beeswax candle was put in the middle of the loaf. A lit candle was placed in the window to invite in any homeless stranger. An extra place setting would be on the table for the souls of the dead or for a stranger should one come to the door.
Later in the day, the father would bring in the “didukh”, a sheaf of fine grain, and would place it in a place of honour near the icons. As dusk approached, the children would look for the first star, for only when it was spotted could the supper be served. Before sitting down to eat, good wishes for all the members of the family were expressed by the father. Prayers were recited and the Nativity Tropar or a carol such as “Boh Predvichny (God Eternal)” was sung.
The meal consisted of twelve meatless dishes to commemorate the twelve apostles. The first dish was always the “kutia”, boiled wheat with honey and poppy seed. The meal then continued with the other eleven dishes. These differed from region to region, but all contained no meat or dairy products as this still was a day of abstinence.
After supper, nuts and sometimes candies were scattered in the hay for the children. Out of respect for their elders, the children would take baskets of food to their grandparents and godparents. Throughout the rest of the evening traditional carols were always sung by all of the family until nearly midnight, when it was time to go to church.
All members of the family went to church to attend the Nativity Liturgy, a beautiful celebration of Christ’s birth. The liturgy was preceded by a matins service during which the words “Z namy Boh” (“God is with us”) were repeated over and over again. Once the liturgy was completed, the families greeted each other with the traditional greeting: “Khrystos Razdayetsia” (“Christ is born”) to which would come the reply, “Slavete Yoho” (Let us glorify him”). After visiting with friends at church, the families returned to their homes. Now that the fast was broken, the delicious pastries that had been prepared for Christmas might be eaten before the family retired to bed.
The celebration of Christmas started on Christmas Day and continued for three days. Carollers would be sure to start their visits to families in the village, always starting first at the home of the priest. It was considered an honour to be visited by carollers and no one was ever turned away.
The day after Christmas is the Synaxis of the Blessed Virgin Mary. A synaxis is a feast which commemorates a person associated with the previous day’s feast. This day was to remind us of the important roles of Mary, Christ’s mother and of Joseph, His guardian on earth. This day was also to remind the faithful of the escape of the Holy Family to Egypt, which saved the newborn Christ from the massacre ordered by Herod.
Celebrated on the third day of Christmas is the Feast of Saint Stephan. Stephan was one of the first seven deacons of the church: he was ordained by the Apostles to live a holy life helping the poor, widows, and orphans. He was a great teacher of the Christian faith, and he performed many miracles. Saint Stephen was the first martyr of the Christian faith. He was stoned to death by his persecutors.
UKRAINIAN CHRISTMAS CAROLLING TRADITIONS
In the days following Christmas Eve through to the Feast of Jordan (Theophany), it was the custom in Ukraine for groups of carollers to visit homes in their village or town. Depending on the locality, the group might have consisted of men, youth, young ladies, older children or a mixed group of young adults. Often there would be more than one group that would be visiting friends and relatives, singing carols both old and new, bringing good wishes for the Christmas season and the coming year, and soliciting donations for good causes, such as church or school.
In the old country, the group would first choose a “bereza”, their leader. At each house, the leader would ask the head of the household, “May we carol for you?” The answer, “Prosymo! (Please do!)” was certain to be heard, for each family was honoured to be visited by carollers. The leader would give directions and start the carolling. Very often the group would carry a homemade Star of Bethlehem (6, 8, or 10- pointed) with a candle within and a picture of the nativity at its centre. It would be mounted on a pole and held high. A “vertep” (manger scene) was sometimes carried by one of the members of the group. In some areas, the group would dress as angels, shepherds or other characters from the Nativity story. They may have presented a short play or skit about the wondrous Christmas story. Right after Christmas the carols could be heard, but later around New Year’s Eve, and sometimes until the Eve of Theophany, the carolers would sing “shchedrivky” (songs that express good luck and wishes for a prosperous new year).
Today in Canada, it is still the custom for carollers to visit homes of friends and family. They wish their hosts good fortune and sing the much loved koliadky (carols) which their ancestors did any years ago. These carollers are still rewarded in much the same way by their hosts – with a treat, a warm drink and a donation to the carolers’ cause.