For as far back as I can remember real icicles, angel hair ornaments and tacky silver tinsel, I got to celebrate Christmas twice each year: the first on December 25th with most of the Christian world, and the second on January 7th with other Orthodox families. I didn’t really care why I celebrated twice, but I was told we followed a different calendar.
Long ago in ancient Rome, Julius Caesar had people create a calendar to mark the days and months. And because he was emperor, he named it after himself: the Julian calendar. It was used all over the world for hundreds of years, but sometime in the 1500s, Pope Gregory XIII decided it was no longer astronomically correct. So in his pontifical wisdom, he charged his astronomers with the task of creating a more accurate calendar; and hence, the Gregorian calendar came into being.
Even in its old-fashionedness, the Eastern Orthodox Church knew that the Julian calendar was outdated, but the problem with changing over was this: following the Gregorian calendar would change the celebration of Pascha (Easter), having it at times coincide with the Jewish Passover, which had been rejected by the early Church Fathers. So to make a long story short, all Orthodox Churches followed the Julian calendar until 1923, when an «Inter Orthodox Congress» was convened in Constantinople. Not all Orthodox Churches were represented, and unfortunately nothing at the meeting was agreed upon unanimously, including the adoption of the Gregorian calendar. Several agreed to make the switch, however, but four jurisdictions retained the Julian calendar: the Churches of Serbia, Russia, Jerusalem, and the monasteries of Mt. Athos. Since my family was originally part of the Russian Orthodox Church, that meant my official Christmas was January 7th.
Looking back, I can’t say for sure why we also celebrated it on December 25th. Maybe it was «when in Rome, do as the Romans do.» Or maybe my parents didn’t want us to feel alienated from everyone else, although we usually had a different Easter. Whatever, I got to have Christmas twice, and there’s nothing much better than that as a kid. Hail Caesar!
My best memories of both celebrations revolve around Christmas Eve. When I was little and waiting for Santa Claus, I would lie in bed looking out my window, frosted with snow and framed by sparkling icicles the size of a person’s leg. There were no such things as miniature outdoor lights; back then, the bulbs were big and most everyone did multi-colored, and I could see these also through my window. I’d fall asleep for what seemed five minutes, and then there would be jingling at our bedroom door.
There would be Santa ringing his bells, laughing and telling us to come into the living room. I would walk in with my brother and sister, and under the tree would be beautifully wrapped presents that hadn’t been there when we went to bed. He would talk to us about his reindeer and how his trip was going, and ask us if we had been kind and obedient and all those things children are supposed to be, especially at Christmastime. After thanking Santa for visiting us, he was off, and we were reluctantly led back to bed to wait until after church the next morning to open our gifts.
It wasn’t until I was almost too old to «still believe» that one Christmas Eve, as I was walking back to my bedroom after Santa had jingled out the door, I saw someone crouched under our kitchen table. What was my godmother doing there?
The next year when Santa came, I recognized my godfather’s smile, his voice, his eyes, and everything else about him. And it didn’t matter that there really wasn’t a Santa Claus; it was the moments, it was the magic, it was the memory of those years of happiness that he had brought to our home so many Christmas Eves that mattered. Years later, I found out that our home was only one stop of many that my godparents made every December 24th. In addition to their other godchildren, they also brought joy and presents to the children’s wing at one of our downtown hospitals; a wing that is now named after them. They never had children of their own, but they shared the many blessings God had given them in the spirit of Saint Nicholas.
Russian Christmas Eve was always spent at my grandmother’s house. If you’ve ever seen the movie «Christmas Story», the one where Ralphie is in danger of losing an eye from a wayward bullet carelessly fired from the Red Ranger rifle he covets for Christmas, Grandma Reta’s house was right across the street from the playground where poor Ralphie gets his tongue freeze-burn stuck on a flagpole. And though my grandmother didn’t have a fishnet-stockinged-leg lamp in her living room window, her house bore some resemblance to Ralphie’s.
How we ever jammed 20 or more people in her dining room, I’ll never know. But she had this massive table that we could all somehow fit around, which was great because at a kids table, you don’t get to hear all the good stuff or ask for sips of wine. On the other hand, you get to be the focus of conversations like «Oh Becky, I’m sure your acne will clear up soon», or «My hair was oily when I was your age too.» Great. I had just washed it that day.
Before supper, we would stand and face her icon corner and my dad would lead us in singing the Lord’s Prayer, the special Nativity Troparion, and all the verses of Silent Night, in both English and Slavonic. The centerpiece was not some fancy floral/candle Martha Stewart kind of arrangement; it was a handful of straw, and simple figures of Mary, Joseph, the wise men and shepherd, and a few lambs centered around baby Jesus. Grandma was not going to let any of us lose our focus.
The meal, which takes many hours to prepare (I know because I have made it), consists of thirteen Lenten dishes; twelve to represent the Apostles, and of course one for Christ. She would start by ladling out bowls of mushroom soup, made with special dried mushrooms sent by relatives in Europe. (I don’t know how this happens, but even picky eaters love this soup, and we always had seconds.) With this, we passed around loaves of homemade bread, and tore off hunks which we would top with slivers of raw garlic and dip in honey. Of course we always laughed about how our breath would offend everyone at church later that night, but since they were all eating the same thing, it didn’t really matter.
There were three kinds of bobalki (bo-BIDE-kee); one-inch round balls of sweetish yeast bread (yes, those Eastern Europeans are big on carbs) that are browned in the oven and then simmered for just a moment in honey water, then tossed with either browned sauerkraut, or mixtures based on ground walnuts and poppyseed. Everyone had their favorites (mine has always been the sauerkraut), but we really should have passed around the dental floss after the poppyseed course. These were the main dishes of the meal, accompanied by such kid-friendly favorites as lima beans, beets and creamed peas, made with an oil roux. Most of us under the age of 21 made faces when these came around the table, but we all had to have at least one bite of everything, and I remember wondering which one of the Apostles got to be the creamed peas.
After dinner, we opened gifts one at a time, youngest to oldest (because the adults had to learn patience), and sang Christmas carols until it was time to go to church. We would bundle up in our sweaters and coats, scarves and mittens to dash through the snow to our car, and everything would be white and twinkly and magical. Soon we would be in church, lighting candles and singing about how God became one of us, as a baby in a barn.
I’m sure I thought much of what we did on Christmas Eve was corny or weird, but in the midst of my teenage angst and uncertainty about life in general, I realized that four generations were focused on that one night, however many years ago, that this miraculous baby was born. Grandma is no longer around, but the traditions are still carried on by her daughters, my mother, my brother and sister, and me. And I pray that my children, a daughter who will be going off to college next fall, and a son who will be a junior in high school, will have these kinds of memories and feelings about Christmas, the birth of Christ, and the meaning that it gives to our lives and to the world.
Christ is born~glorify Him!