Dr. Gitartha Roymedhi
For us 25th December is the day when Lord Jesus Christ was born on this earth. The whole world celebrate this day as Christmas day. Although December 25th is the day when most of the people feast, exchange gifts, prays and greet each other with “Merry Christmas”, there is also a community in the same globe for whom the Christmas day falls on the 7th January. They are the Orthodox Christians who observe this holy and religious day after 13 days.
Orthodox Christianity is mostly followed in countries like Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Armenia, Moldavia, Georgia, Ethiopia, Israel, Serbia etc. The religious festival is celebrated in different ways due to a difference in calendars. Majority of the Orthodox churches across the world follow the Julian calendar that was created under the reign of Julius Caesar in the 45 BC. The Julian calendar did not adopt the Gregorian calendar which was proposed in the year 1582 in Rome by Latin Pope Gregory. There are 13 days in difference between the two calendars. The Gregorian calendar was accepted and followed by most of the western countries. To bring the Christmas day in a common sequence with the Gregorian calendar, a revised version of the Julian calendar was introduced in the year 1923 but it was adopted by only few countries like Greece, Cyprus, Romania etc where the Orthodox Christianity is the official religion and widely followed.
The Russian Federation is the homeland of 39 % of the world's Orthodox Christians. January 7th is a National holiday in Russia and former parts of Soviet Union. If the day falls on a weekend, the non working day migrates to the following Monday. The authorities sometimes declare a National vacation from the January 1st to 10th in Russia or Ukraine due to close proximity of New Year holidays, Christmas and the weekends between the two holidays. During the Soviet period practicing of religious festivals were banned by the official state policy of atheism until 1936. The Christmas celebration was also prohibited in the year 1929 by the Bolsheviks after the Russian Revolution in the year 1917. In the year 1935 there was a surprising turn in state politics and the Christmas celebration was adopted as a part of secular New Year celebration. The celebration included decoration of Yeolka (Christmas tree), gathering, visit by Ded Maroz ( Grandfather Frost or Santa Clause) along with his granddaughter Sneguroshka (Snow maiden) with gifts and magical stuffs etc. The Christmas tree and the visit of Santa Clause that symbolize the festival of Christmas for the rest of the world turned into the New Year symbols for the Orthodox Soviets. Since the year 1991 following the collapse of Soviet Union, Christmas became a official holiday and non labour day in Russia.
The common symbols of Orthodox Christmas are a decorated fir tree, a star on the top of the tree and a baby Jesus. To the other Christian communities in the Western Europe and United States, one of the famous fact about Christmas observation in Russia is the story of Babushka (Grandmother). The story tells about the old lady who met the three wise men or sometimes called as three kings on their way to see Jesus. The Russians call Christmas as Rozhdestvo Khristovo in their native language which means the birthday of Lord Jesus. People do greet each other as 'S Rah-Zh-Dee-St-Vohm' that means Merry or Happy Christmas.
People in Russia celebrates the Christmas day with multiple activities such as having family dinner, attending a Christmas liturgy or service and visiting friends and relatives. There is a 40 days Advent period preceding Christmas day when the practicing Orthodox Christians do not eat meat. The Advent period ends with the first star in the night sky on 6th January which marks the symbol of the Lord's birth.
There are also some people who do fast on the day called Sochelnik (Christmas eve) that falls on prior to the Christmas day. The first star on the night sky signals the beginning of the Christmas dinner. Followers do visit the Orthodox churches that evening to attend a Christmas liturgy. On the occasion of Christmas eve a tradition is followed where the young women uses a mirror and candles to invoke the image of their future husbands. Fortune telling in the church on that day is another belief of the Orthodox Russian Christians.
There is a tradition of having big family meal on the Christmas eve which often features 12 courses to represent the 12 disciples of Jesus. The meals varies from region to region. Principle dishes on the Christmas table in Russia are the traditional and ethnic foods. Following the appearance of the first star people feast on Kutia (traditional porridge). Kutia symbolizes the unity within the community and therefore is eaten from a common bowl. In the past people used to throw a spoonful of Kutia up on the ceiling. They believed that if the food gets stuck on the ceiling, it will bring fortune and a good harvest to them. Other popular foods on the Christmas eve includes Borsh and Solyanka (both soups), Olivier (traditional salad), Kholodets (jelly), vegetable pies, baked mushrooms, Kompot (non alcoholic traditional drink) etc. The main course meal on the Christmas day includes roasted pork and beef, grilled chicken and goose sometimes, baked fish, Pilmeni (meat dumplings), Pirozhki (baked puffs), Blini (pan cakes), Pryaniki and Kozula (types of cookies), Tort (home made cakes), Kissels (home made juices) and many such ethnic items from the Russian kitchen.
Now a days most of the countries are following the Gregorian calendar. Until the year 1755 Germany did not accept the Gregorian calendar. Bulgaria also adopted the Gregorian calendar after the year 1917. The Russians had started following the Gregorian calendar for secular purposes since the year 1918. But regarding the traditional holidays and religious festivals, they still do follow the Julian one. That is the reason the Russians and the other followers celebrates New Year Day twice in a year.
On 1st January they observe the Day along with the rest of the world as the first day of the year. They also observe 14th January as the first day of the year according to the Julian Calendar which they call as Old New Year or Orthodox New Year.
Dr. Gitartha Roymedhi is the
Chief Operating Officer,
North East Cancer Hospital & Research Institute,
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