Voices from Russia

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Yes, It Was Orthodox Christmas Yesterday… A Multimedia Presentation

00d Orthodox Christmas 2013. Serbia. Badnjak. 12.01.13

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Typically, when they celebrate Christmas Eve, members of St Sava Serbian Orthodox Church in McKeesport PA gather outdoors for the traditional blessing of the badnjak. This year, due to the extreme cold, they held most of the ceremony indoors in the fellowship hall… as golden-robed acolytes brought in an oak branch with browned leaves… a symbol of hope in rebirth amid the dark of winter. Only the last part of the ceremony… the burning of the badnjak… took place in a fire pit outdoors. However, there was plenty of warmth indoors, physically and spiritually. Very Rev Stevan Rocknage of St Sava said, “Christ is born!” The worshippers crowded into the hall replied, “Indeed he is born!” Then, they repeated the phrases in Church Slavonic, “Mir Bozhi, Khistos se rodi!” “Vaistinu se rodi!” In beginning the evening’s festivities, Fr Stevan said, “Let’s get this show on the road”.

Whilst many Orthodox celebrate Christmas at the same time as Roman Catholics and Protestants, most Slavic Orthodox continue to follow the traditional Orthodox calendar based on the ancient Julian calendar, according to which today is Christmas Day. At St Sava, the priests and a small, but energetic, choir alternated with chants and hymns, some in English and others in Church Slavonic. Clergy blessed wheat, walnuts, and coins… auspicious symbols scattered in the straw on the floor for the children to pick up. Before the service, Mary Magdić said that she loves the annual Christmas gatherings, “You don’t get this everywhere”, pointing to the crowded room brimming with conversation and anticipation. Gary Trbovich agreed, saying of the congregation, “It’s a family. It doesn’t get any better than this”.

Fr Stevan said that the blessing of the badnjak, is a Christianised version of an ancient pagan custom symbolizing death and rebirth, noting, “It’s a way of showing Christ is the God of life”. Steve Kracinovsky, president of the parish board, said that many members are in inter-religious families and exchange gifts on the Western Christmas, they’re able to focus on the spiritual aspects of the holiday by marking the Nativity separately, saying, “There’s no rushing. All the gift-giving is over”. Fr Stevan added, “From the eve of Christmas on Monday through 12 days to Epiphany, which marks the visit of the Wise Men to the baby Jesus in Bethlehem, we celebrate and try constantly to remind ourselves through our actions, this is why we’re celebrating”.

After the blessing of the badnjak, parishioners went upstairs to the sanctuary for Christmas Eve liturgy, beginning with a familiar tune, Silent Night in English and Church Slavonic. They also gather for liturgy on Christmas Day. Fr Stevan said that he sees parishioners seeking comfort and peace in spiritual things during times of economic and other struggles, observing, “What a wonderful thing for the birth of our Lord to come, because the world is in such turmoil. People flock to our parish just to get away from the craziness out there”. He said that it inspires people to do something about that craziness. For example, at a recent youth group meeting, he said that the young people resolved to bring gift packages to nursing homes and visit an Orthodox monastery to help spruce it up.

Similar observances took place at Holy Trinity Serbian Orthodox Cathedral in Whitehall PA. The weather wasn’t ideal for an outdoor ceremony, but Very Rev Rajko Kosić, parish priest at the cathedral said, “You just have to do what you have to do. Even though Easter is the biggest holy day of all, Christmas is more joyous. When a child is born, everybody’s happy”.

6 January 2014

Peter Smith

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

http://www.post-gazette.com/local/region/2014/01/07/Orthodox-celebrate-Christmas.html

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01i Bagpipes serbian gaide

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Perched in a sunny spot on Mim Bizić’s kitchen counter is a glass bowl that, at first glance, appears to be green grass growing from a bed of pebbles. However, the pebbles are grains of wheat that broke open to release shoots of new life… a metaphor for Jesus’ death and resurrection taken from the Gospel according to St John. This tiny garden of wheat is a psenica (SHEN-it-za, literally, “grain of wheat”), a Christmas tradition in the Serbian Orthodox Church, which occurs on 7 January according to the Orthodox Calendar. Traditionally, one plants the seeds in a bowl on 19 December, St Nicholas Day, and waters them after reciting the Our Father. Waiting for them to grow is a spiritual exercise.

Ms Bizić, who retired five years ago as a librarian in the Quaker Valley School District, said, “Isn’t it a fun way to pass the short, dark days waiting for the birth of Christ?” The green wheat is held tall and straight by a circlet of ribbon in the Serbian national colours of red, blue, and white. She said, “When you first put the wheat in, you wonder if it’ll grow. Then, you see it put out these little knots, and, then, the shoots. You can see it grow the next day and the next. It fills you with happiness”. Her home in Moon PA is fully decorated for Christmas, which she joked that she celebrates three times. There’s St Nicholas Day on 19 December, then, 25 December, for what she calls “American Christmas”, complete with presents. However, the holy day, and the day of the most treasured customs, is always 7 January.

She’s the granddaughter of Serbian immigrants who grew up on the South Side. She never felt odd for celebrating Christmas in January. Her German and Lithuanian friends enjoyed participating in the family celebrations with her. There was the Christmas tradition of lighting three candles… in honour of the Holy Trinity… whilst reciting the Our Father. There’s also a tradition of baking a coin into a special loaf of bread, which the family passed around the table as they sang a hymn. The coin brings luck to whoever finds it. Ms Bizić records these traditions and many more on her website, its name means “Grandma Mim”. It’s a virtual museum of Serbian culture, which her home has been for many years. Just inside the front door, visitors see a portrait of Karadjordje, who led the First Serbian Uprising of the Serbian Revolution against the Ottoman Turks. Every wall has icons, folk art, and family mementos. She passed all of this along to her son, Nick, who’s teaching it to his 3-year-old daughter, Jocelyn. Ms Bizić’s website includes a series of photographs in which she and Jocelyn prepared a psenica. Her son also spread the tradition to some of his Texas neighbours.

This year her parish, St Elijah Serbian Orthodox Church in Aliquippa PA, sold kits to make psenicas. They’ll send the proceeds to Kosovo to buy firewood. She said, “Even though we mightn’t make that much money selling the kits, we’re keeping the custom alive for harried families who mightn’t have the time to go shopping to a speciality store to buy loose wheat”. On Christmas, the psenica takes its place at the centre of the family table, where it’s part of all the family prayers and rituals. Afterwards, one gives it to the birds. Ms. Bizić said, “We bless ourselves and make a grand send-off. We say, ‘We thank you, psenica, for being with us and making us happy through this whole season of expectation’”.

7 January 2010

Ann Rodgers

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

http://www.post-gazette.com/neighborhoods-west/2010/01/07/Moon-woman-keeps-Serbian-Orthodox-Christmas-customs-alive/stories/201001070297

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St Nicholas. Serbian. 1987

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This morning at St Nicholas Carpatho-Russian Orthodox Church in Homestead PA, Fr Robert Buczak will celebrate Divine Liturgy, the choir will sing kolyadki, and everyone will eat an enormous feast. For his parish and Orthodox around the world, today is Christmas. Although many may think that Orthodox celebrate today because this is the day that the Magi, or three Wise Men, arrived to visit Jesus, Fr Robert said that it’s because it’s 25 December on the traditional Orthodox calendar. Most Orthodox follow the Julian calendar, not the Gregorian calendar, the civil calendar in widespread use. Pope Gregory XIII Boncompagni introduced the Gregorian calendar in 1582; eventually, it became the calendar used throughout the world. Some Orthodox adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1923 for fixed feasts. Those following the traditional calendar celebrate Christmas and other church holidays, except Easter, 13 days after Gregorian calendar dates. Fr Robert said, “So, it’s not that we believe [Jesus' birth is] a different date. It’s the same date”.

Christmas for non-Orthodox Christians usually includes a church service, gifts, mangers, carols, and a large dinner. Orthodox Christmas includes all that, too, but with a few tweaks. Even though they celebrate Christmas and worship Christ, Orthodox don’t usually say, “Merry Christmas”. They prefer “Christ is born”. The Nativity scenes also differ. Like others, the Nativity displayed at St Nicholas shows the Holy Family, animals, a star, and a manger. However, it doesn’t have statues. This manger scene is an icon, a traditional painting. St Nicholas, like most Orthodox churches, has icons, not statues. The manger scene resembles others… Mary and Joseph crouch over a baby in swaddling clothes, whilst a donkey and ox look out from a cave. Then, Fr Robert asked, “Is Jesus’ face a baby’s face or a man’s face? Are his blankets swaddling clothes or a burial shroud? Is the cave a manger or a tomb? Icons tell stories”.

You can hear another difference in the music… the kolyadki sung a capella by the church choir during the Christmas Eve service aren’t the ones played on the radio. Fr Robert explained that Orthodox from Carpatho-Russia in Eastern Europe founded St Nick’s, so, the kolyadki, or Christmas songs, come from that area. He promised me, “[When the choir sings] you’ll feel like you’re in the kingdom of heaven”. Fr Robert said that the Orthodox celebration begins on Christmas Eve with a Holy Supper served “when the first star appears in the sky”. It includes twelve fasting dishes, including mushroom soup and bobalki… dough balls with kapusta. Families place straw under the table to represent the manger and always leave one chair empty for any stray guest. Fr Robert said, “So, there’s always room at the inn”. After supper, an evening church service is held, followed by a second service Christmas morning, and a second feast, this one including meat.

When does the gift giving start? It already happened… on 19 December. That, according to the Church calendar, was St Nick’s Day. Traditionally, families give gifts then, based on the legend of St Nicholas giving three women three purses filled with coins to help with their wedding dowry. The early gift giving leaves St Nick’s parishioners free to focus on the spiritual side of Christmas.

7 January 2010

Kate McCaffrey

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

http://www.post-gazette.com/local/south/2010/01/07/Today-is-Christmas-for-Orthodox/stories/2010010704560000000

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