As long time followers of this forum know by now, I am a cradle Orthodox, in my sixties and from a family of parish priests. On Tuesday of this week, my wife and I returned from my son's new home in Georgia where he has been assigned by his Bishop to serve as pastor of a small, but growing parish north of Atlanta, Georgia. All mission parishes in our jurisdiction are required to be on the RJC (i.e. the 'New' Calendar) and our home parish in upstate New York is most decidedly 'Old Calendar'. So, for the first time in our family's life, a 'real' New Calendar Christmas was to be observed.
I should note that I've 'celebrated' Christmas on the 25th in some way or another most of my life. When I was a child, my parents and my godparents would come home to New Jersey to my grandparents' home for a family gathering on the 25th of December. We were all Old Calendar and both my dad and my Godfather - married to my mom's sister - were Orthodox priests and back then - there was only one calendar for the Slavic Orthodox. So the 25th was Baba's big day - a meal for the whole family - about forty of us - and yes, most of us said a prayer, winked and broke the fast - and cousins shared Santa's bounty an. Good times and loving memories forged the feast. But - what kept this Rockwellian image from really being Christmas was that we lacked the participation of our families in the cycle of services which define the Nativity for Orthodox Christians. (It was only 'Christmas' dinner - not the Holy Night/Svatyj Vecer meal.) We sing a few secular carols and a few church carols beloved to many of the Slavs but that was it. 'Little Christmas' would end and back home we would go to prepare for the ' Big Christmas' at home. Pop would visit the homebound, those in nursing homes, hear confessions for what seemed endless hours, he would labor over the typewriter preparing 'stencils' to run off on the mimeograph for the Church Christmas bulletin and of course, the seemingly endless cycle of services would began in earnest.
Meanwhile, back at the house, my mom would spend days baking traditional Christmas pastry and cookies, as the 5th and 6th of January arrived the smells of the Holy Supper foods would dominate - some were wonderful - others not so much! But it was hustle and bustle and of course the wrapping of presents behind closed doors. It often seemed as if every family in the parish got something and in turn the doorbell never stopped ringing it seemed with friends bringing little, and not so little, thank you's for my parents with the booming greeting of 'Christos Razdajetsja.'
As the 7th neared, the Holy Supper was set and served, the evening was followed by Church and caroling...in the morning - no presents until AFTER Liturgy - which seemed like eternity to the minds of all of the children in the family. (That still seems the same!)
We gathered again at the table after Liturgy and gave thanks as Pop lead us in prayer and blessed the food. Friends would come over in the evening and extend their greetings and in the morning - all over again for what seemed days - we repeated the liturgy and in the evening Vespers soon followed. At some of the parishes my dad served, it was the custom for the choir and parishioners to come to the rectory for light snacks, carols and libations following liturgy as well. In others, the doorbell and phone rang continuously with greetings and well-wishers – Christ is Born Christos Razdajetsja!
After we were married, my wife and I would bundle the children into the car, drive through the crazy upstate weather to Buffalo and join her family in the celebration. But about twenty years ago my wife's parents' parish 'voted' to change the calendar in what was a controversial meeting. It was hardly a glorious occasion the first year we visited there on the 25th, the in-laws were not happy with the change, nor was a majority of the congregation. Some waiting until the 7th and attended at the local Ukrainian or Serbian church, others were simply AWOL. As the years passed, things improved, but our contact with the New Calendar was limited to a brief in and out stopover for a day.
This year, as I said my youngest son was ordained to the priesthood and sent by our Bishop to a new parish in the South. We planned out trip for a few weeks and in the days leading up to our departure on the 21st of December we were busy on two calendars – preparing for our home parish’s St. Nicholas celebration and breakfast (we served over 240) and baking and preparing traditional Christmas foods and goodies for our trip. For the first time in my life our house was decorated by St. Nicholas Day and the kitchen smelled as I remembered over the generations with the time honored aroma of various foods and baked goods.
We packed our little car to the gills as they say and off we went, arriving in the Atlanta area the next morning after a long, misty and foggy ride down the spine of the Appalachian Mountains from central New York to north Georgia. When we arrived, the rectory was resplendent in Christmas lights with a beautiful tree. My son had ‘claimed’ many of his grandparents Christmas items which were displayed around the house as they had always been at home in my memory.
The kitchen smelled of baked prosphora and other items and my son was busy working on the service booklets and bulletin for the Nativity. Just like I always remembered with my dad and brother, I thought as we unpacked and settled in.
The next day was the eve of the nativity and the cycle of services took place. In the evening, instead of a family Holy Supper there was a communal one with all of the traditional foods brought in ‘pot luck’ style by cradle and convert families alike. It was beautiful. The Complines of Christmas followed and I was honored to cantor the service with my son. At the end the Church was darkened and we all sang traditional kolady/carols as has been the case with my people since – well forever in memory at least
The next morning was Christmas and off to Church for liturgy. The choir sang familiar responses and melodies. Afterwards, all were invited to the parish house for refreshments and fellowship.
In the afternoon, when the dust had settled we finally opened gifts and we all fell asleep – exhausted as those who grew up in priestly families can well relate! The cycle of services was repeated on the next three days through Sunday the 28th. My son was asked to come to an ailing parishioner’s home to distribute communion and he asked me along – as my father did when I was a boy long ago. We chatted, sang a few songs, ate some cake with the wife of the ailing man and went on our way. With hearts both filled with joy and heavy at the thought of departing my wife and I headed north to New York.
As I write this, it is January 2nd. My kitchen smells of the traditional preparations, we have a choir concert at our church tonight with other Orthodox choirs and the cycle of anticipation, excitement and exhaustion begins anew. The rest of my family, including my sixteen month old grandson will soon arrive and it will be Christmas again.
So…I never really ‘got it’ when people would say the ‘date is unimportant’.
Somehow I thought separating the great day from the commercialism of the secular made our way ‘better.’ Well, on the long drive home, we had time to reflect upon these things and we realized that Christmas was not really just a date – it is far more than that and our New Calendar Christmas with our fellow Orthodox Christians in that little parish far away – and I am sure in my neighboring OCA, GOA and other ‘new calendar’ parishes here in town was in fact Christmas. And I suspect, it had much more of what Christmas really is all about in the hearts and souls of those present than among some of us who are so wedded to a date that we can not see the forest for the trees.
Christ is Born! Glorify Him!