Christmas Eve has always been one of my favourite nights of the year. As a child I loved going to Church, and then coming home knowing that after a short sleep I would wake up to opening presents! In my early teens we even added opening one present Christmas Eve. Both going to church and receiving presents made the occasion special, as my mother was a Christmas and Easter churchgoer. Now that I’m older, going to church isn’t an unusual thing, and presents aren’t as big a deal. But Christmas Eve is more special than ever! Let me share with you the traditions of the Christian East for this holy evening.
The Final Nativity Fast Meal
If you haven’t already, check out my article on The Nativity Fast and Advent, and how the traditions compare in the East and the West. Byzantine Catholics and Orthodox fast from meat and dairy for the forty days leading up to Christmas. This includes Christmas Eve, when a very special meal is prepared, called Свята Вечеря (Svyata vecherya, or Holy supper). This meal has 12 meatless dishes, symbolizing the apostles. Some countries prepare 13 dishes, with the extra dish representing Christ.
The day of Christmas Eve is a strict fast, with people who are able to do so only drinking water throughout the day until the evening meal. The strict fast helps us to remember the suffering and hardships of Mary as she travelled to Bethlehem. I wouldn’t want to travel far by car while 9 months pregnant. It’s hard to imagine how difficult the journey was for the Theotokos.
The meal itself does not begin until someone spots the first star of the evening. This star represents the star that led the magi to Jesus. This is a really fun tradition which adds to the magic of the evening. Often the youngest child is tasked with watching for that first star. Boh Predvichny, or God Eternal, is sung before the start of the meal. After the meal the family may go out to sing more carols. Carolling is still a strong tradition in Byzantine communities.
12 Meatless Dishes
The 12 Meatless dishes often vary by country and tradition. However, there are a few staples, one of which is Kutya, a sort of pudding which is usually the first dish served. It is made with wheatberries, honey, and poppyseed. When I first saw it, I thought I wouldn’t like it, but its really quite good! Cabbage rolls, Ukrainian cabbage buns, mushrooms, and potato and onion perogies are popular for Ukrainian meatless meals. Many Ukrainians wouldn’t consider it a proper Christmas Eve meal without their favourite beet soup: Borshch.
Since there are so many options for meatless dishes, I won’t try to list them all. If you are thinking of starting this tradition with your family for the first time, I recommend planning for many of the meatless dishes not to involve you cooking. Maybe make it a large family gathering meatless potluck. Or pick many simple dishes that can be made ahead of time and just taken out of the fridge.
As it’s a very special occasion, the table is set with the finest dish ware and embroidery. Ukrainians use a very special centrepiece called a didukh, which is a wheat sheaf with a ribbon tied around it. Three Kolach, which is the Christmas bread, are placed around the didukh to represent the Trinity. Also, an extra place is set at the table. Some do this to remember family members who have died and thus are not able to be present at the meal this year. Others set the place for Christ, whom we are awaiting.
During the preparation of the meal Christmas ornaments are put up, and the tree is decorated. When setting up nativity scenes it is proper to wait until after church to put Jesus in the manger. Whether you have one or many nativity sets, if you are worried about losing baby Jesus by separating him from the nativity set, place the figurine(s) in a little box and wrap it. Then when you open this, the most precious Christmas gift, you’ll be able to go and complete the nativity scenes.
З Нами Бог/Emmanuel, God (is) With Us
On Christmas Eve the Divine Liturgy is celebrated with a Great Compline service. Traditionally Myrovania follows – anointing with holy oil and receiving a piece of blessed bread. In Western countries there is a Divine Liturgy on Christmas Eve. In Eastern countries, matins follows compline instead, and the Divine Liturgy is only celebrated on Christmas Day.
The Compline for Christmas Eve contains a beautiful chant of З Нами Бог. It’s my husband’s favourite. It takes place right after Psalm 90, with the people and the clergy alternating the singing of this refrain: God is with us, understand all you nations, and submit yourselves, for God is with us. Personally, I think the chant is better in Ukrainian than in English. A copy of the chant can be found here, on the website for the Eparchy of Pittsburgh. They have the Slavic alongside an English translation.
Your Christmas Eve
So do you have any special Christmas Eve traditions? If so let me know about them in the comments! Unless your church is on the other calendar. Either way may God’s blessings be with you and your family as you celebrate the greatest gift of all, Jesus!