Voices from Russia

Wednesday, 7 January 2009

Christmas Eve: Traditions and Recipes


Suvorov Waited for the Star!

Remember how, a few years ago, there appeared regularly on television pictures of a noisy feast? Glasses rang and the utensils sparkled… Only one person was silent, and had nothing to eat. It was the renowned Russian general Aleksandr Vasilyevich Suvorov. He thus separated himself from the crowd of merrymakers, which was noted by the Tsaritsa herself. “Indeed, I must fast until the first star appears, dear Mother”, the generalissimo quietly explained. Of course, after a broad gesture of approval from Tsaritsa Yekaterina, he raised his glass. But, in fact, this party took place on Christmas Eve, a day of the strictest fasting before the feast of Christmas. Why did Suvorov believe it necessary to behave thusly on this day?

The Strictest Day of the Christmas Lent

The preparation for Christmas begins with the forty days of the Christmas Lent. The last day before the holiday is called sochelnik (from the word sochivo, a special dish of sweet beans), and, on this day, the Church prescribes a strict fast before the evening services (of course, this applies only to those who are able to do this without harming their health). By tradition, the meal can only begin after the appearance of the first star, in memory of the Star of Bethlehem, which announced to the shepherds the birth of Christ.

The letter of the Church typikon does not mention this tradition, but, it is expected that worshippers shall carry a lit candle to the service. The clergy and the faithful sing the tropar of the feast of the Nativity of Christ with lighted candles in their hands. Nowadays, the service takes place in the morning, so, you can eat non-Lenten food at the end of the Divine Liturgy.

“On Christmas Eve, before Christmas Day, it so happened that they did not eat until the first star appeared”, wrote the Russian émigré writer Ivan S. Shmelev in his novel, Leto Gospodne (The Summer of God). “Kutia made with boiled wheat and honey; vzvar made from prunes, pears, and raisins… the image was placed over a pile of hay. Why? It was as if it were a gift to Christ. Well… if He lay in the manger, it should lie in a manger. Sometimes, waiting for the stars, you polished all the glasses… the first star appeared, and, then, another… then, the light bursts forth from the black backdrop of the sky, it shimmers. What a star it was! Hazy, yet alive, struggling, it caught the eyes. In the frozen air, amongst the large stars, different lights shone out… crystal blue, deep blue, and green, all of them, shooting out at you. Then, you heard the ringing of the bells. It was if the stars themselves were ringing as the bells! Frosty and resonant, as pure as silver… In the Kremlin, they struck the ancient bells, by degrees, it seemed so muffled. The bells were as taut as silver, but, also, as smooth as velvet. It seemed as though they all began to sing out; the bells in a thousand church belfries began to play. You shall not hear the like today… no. Not at Easter, it doesn’t sound like that, and that first ring spreads, singing with a silver song, seemingly without a beginning or an end… boom… boom…”

In the ancient church, the Divine Liturgy, the foremost church service, at which bread and wine is changed into the Body and Blood of Christ, at Christmas Eve, was served at night. One ought not to eat or drink before receiving the Holy Eucharist; so, there is a pious tradition not to eat anything on the day preceding the service, starting at the hour that the liturgy is supposed to end the next day. Following this rule, the custom arose not to eat until the first star appeared in the sky, although the service is now done in the morning.

How Do You Prepare Sochivo?

Sochivo is made from boiled wheat (or kutia), peas, rice, pearl barley, refined honey, poppy-seeds, dressed with hemp, sunflower, or other vegetable oils suitable for a Lenten meal. The wheat was a symbol of life coming back after the winter, and the honey or other sweet ingredients symbolised sweetness and blessedness in one’s future. However, the Lent has not yet ended, the solemn holiday liturgy is yet to come, so, the Christmas goose, kholodtsy, and kolbasi will come later, on Christmas Day, and during the Svyatki (Holy Days) that lead up to Epiphany.

But, How Does One Prepare Oneself?

The last five days of the Christmas Lent are entirely devoted to preparing for the holiday. One notices that the services appointed for these days are similar to the preparatory services of Passion Week. It helps us to remember not only the external and merciful aspects of the holiday, such as home decorations, gifts, and the oxen and donkeys in the crèche in the nursery watching over the baby Jesus, but, also, that for which Christ came into the world: the Incarnation of God, perhaps, for Him, it was not less a cross than the cross on Golgotha. However, gradually, this sober mood becomes replaced by one of happiness and rejoicing. If, previously, the texts for the Church services indicated the condescension of the mystery of God coming to earth, now, they speak about the terrestrial consequences of this event, both touching and surprising.

Already, in the service of Christmas Eve, we read many passages from the Gospel that narrate the birth of Christ. These are like the rays of light penetrating from the bright day of the feast. We read the prophecies about the coming of Christ from the Old Testament. Precisely, on this day, we hear in the church, In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth… for the first time, we sing the first hymns glorifying the holiday, so, we are able to take home expectation and calm happiness.

6 January 2009



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