Religion News: December 2019

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Hay is an important symbol that is sometimes scattered on the table.

Ancient Traditions Observed at Orthodox Christmas

As Ukraine remains in the political spotlight, the faithful at St. Nicholas Orthodox Church in Greenwood prepare for Christmas and worship together, whether they have roots in Russia, Ukraine, Romania or Belo-Russia, or are converts to orthodoxy. “We share many of the same customs and history,” said Fr. Holet, the church’s pastor. 

At St. Nicholas, unlike many of the country’s orthodox churches, the service is in English, he said, to accommodate the disparate backgrounds of the parishioners. “Many are not ideological regarding the tensions between Russia and Ukraine,” he said. “They speak Russian as well as Ukrainian and just long for peace and prosperity in their homelands for their families there. They love to visit with their friends from both Russia and Ukraine and speak in their native languages and share traditional Ukrainian customs.”

There are traces of bitterness, to be sure, Holet noted, some long-standing from Communism or even before. Even though the Soviet Union dissolved years ago, the Eastern Orthodox Church is still recovering from its treatment by the state, as are the Ukrainian people. In the ‘30s, Stalin commandeered all the wheat farmers could raise, literally starving the people. At least 4 million and possibly 10 million people died in the midst of the productive farmland known as Europe’s breadbasket. 

The Ukrainian Christmas table has 12 dishes, to represent the 12 apostles.

Later, during Nazi occupation, trainloads of Ukrainians were deported to Germany to work in factories that supported the Reich. When the soldiers retreated, they burned much of the country. When the war ended, the displaced people from Ukraine were sent to camps in Europe, or the Americas for resettlement, if they were lucky. Those in the Soviet zone were viewed with suspicion and many ended up in gulags. 

In Ukraine, complex black markets enabled oppressed citizens to meet their basic needs, establishing a system of corruption that’s been famously tough to overcome. But Orthodox people meeting in America do not hold each other responsible for what came before. “It’s kind of like the North and the South here,” Holet said. “There may be general feelings but for the most part they don’t carry over into individual interactions.”

There have been several waves of immigration, Holet said. Since the 1990s, many hundreds of thousands of immigrants poured into large communities, not only in traditional ethnic areas such as New York and Chicago, but Portland and Sacramento. They are happy to have the opportunity to work and raise their families, and readily learn English and adapt to American life, Holet said: “In some cases that’s not such a good thing!”

The ancient rituals of advent focus on preparing for the nativity, rather than on shopping. The thirty-nine days before Christmas involve fasting and spiritual preparation as well as making the home ready. Christians are asked to reconcile with their neighbors, resolving any disagreements in advance of Christmas. In Ukraine as well as here, some Orthodox Church members celebrate Christmas on Dec. 25, while some use the Julian calendar date of January 7. At St. Nicholas in Greenwood, the congregation observes Christmas on Dec. 25. 

Holet said that sometimes Ukrainians in the Shenandoah Valley have been sponsored by Protestant missionary groups, and do not observe the rituals of Orthodoxy. Others, though, will seek out the churches in America that observe Ukrainian customs, especially for special events like weddings, or during the days leading up to Christmas. Several saints important in Eastern Europe have feast days during the early winter: St. Catherine, the apostle St. Andrew, St. Barbara, and St. Nicholas. Young children loved the feast of St. Nicholas on Dec. 6: and would visit, go for sleigh rides and receive gifts in honor of the third-century bishop who was said to have given bags of gold to poor young women with no chance of a dowry, and to convince representatives of the government to distribute wheat to the poor.

The nativity icon greets visitors to St. Nicholas Orthodox Church in Greenwood.

According to Ukrainian custom, Christmas Eve is a fast day, said Fr. Holet, and no meat or dairy products are served at dinner. A sheave of wheat is placed on or near the table, and a large loaf of bread is an impressive centerpiece. Hay, to symbolize the stable where Christ was born, is also placed somewhere in the room. Despite the dietary restrictions, many dishes—12, to represent the apostles—are served, with different kinds of fish, pickled vegetables, dumplings (pirogies) stuffed with vegetables, rice and potato dishes, mushrooms, beans, sauerkraut and beets. Cookies, nuts and stewed fruit are served for dessert. Fr. Holet said that garlic and honey are placed on the table to symbolize the sweetness and bitterness of life. “No one can eat until the first star appears in the sky,” he said, “and a place is always left in the hope that Christ will visit.”

After dinner, there are church services, visiting and caroling. The fast is broken and several days of light, warmth and celebration follow, as befits a country with a long, dark winter.

Festival of Lessons and Carols at Holy Cross

Holy Cross Church in Batesville invites everyone to join in the historic Festival of Lessons and Carols at the church Christmas Eve. This traditional Anglican worship service will include short readings from the Bible along with the singing of carols and hymns.  The service will begin at 4 p.m. Tuesday, December 24, followed by fellowship in the parish hall with cookies and hot cider.

The interior of Holy Cross church in Batesville, decorated for Christmas.

The community is also invited to attend the service celebrating the nativity of Jesus Christ at 10 a.m. Christmas Day. Holy Cross is at 2523 Craigs Store Road (Rt. 635); directions are provided at the Holy Cross website: www.holycrosschurchbatesville.org.

Performance at Batesville Methodist Church

Music, stories, a nativity scene, praise dancers and a “light of the world” ceremony will all be party of a festive seasonal performance at the Batesville Methodist Church, Sunday, December 15, at 3 p.m. Everyone is welcome.

Small Blessings

Local churches fill the holidays with a number of special events sure to spread joy, in addition to their charitable endeavors and traditional worship. Be sure to shop at the annual Crozet Methodist Church Christmas Bazaar Dec. 7 from 8 a.m to 1 p.m. At St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Ivy, there’s a special bread-making workshop on Sunday, December 8, in the Parish Hall from 1 to 4 p.m. You’ll need to RSVP, [email protected] 

Also that day, “The Greatest Showman” will be shown at the Wayne Theatre in Waynesboro. The 6 p.m. film, followed by a discussion, is sponsored by Waynesboro’s First Baptist Church. Feast on chili and watch a variety show at Crozet Baptist Church December 15 from 5 to 7 p.m. At Tabor Presbyterian, a late-month service will sing out the season Dec. 29. To have your favorite hymn considered for the worship service that Sunday, submit it to the church office by Dec. 16.  

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