Orthodox Christmas in America

As we have now moved past the Thanksgiving holiday, Christmas is well on its way. Of course, as Orthodox Christians, we know that we celebrate Christmas a little different than the rest of the country. We are supposed to fast before the feast, and celebrate for 8 days afterwards, when the rest of the country has already burned out on Christmas. We are supposed to fast all day on Christmas Eve, and attend liturgy that night (or the next morning), while everyone else is celebrating by having Christmas dinner and opening presents in their pj’s around the tree.

While all that sounds fun, Christmas is about way more than fun. Christmas is about our salvation. Xboxes and new purses are nice, they don’t compare to eternal life with God and the avoidance of eternal punishment. Is it just that straight forward? Yes, I believe it is.

So how do we break the cycle of a secular Christmas and get back to what Christmas is supposed to be about, meanwhile not turning people away from the faith because they love the “Christmas feeling”?

We can still do quite a bit of “American Christmas,” while still being true to ourselves as Orthodox Christians. Christmas decorations, for example, are mostly good. I guess it’s nice that we are spending so much time preparing our homes and communities for the coming of Christ, but let’s make sure to not forget who we are doing this for. Maybe we could add some icons of the Nativity or of the saints, who we celebrate during the Nativity Fast, to our decorations. We could get creative and make a fourteen-point star (like the one over Christ’s birthplace in Bethlehem) to top our tree.

There are some good vegan treats that we could *occasionally* cheat with. Besides all of the very important spiritual reasons for fasting, I also think giving up certain foods and feasting on the feast itself makes things more special. Perhaps doing more with our families in serving the homeless during Christmas time would help remind us that we are fortunate the entire year, and it would be good for us to share the food that we would normally eat with the less fortunate.

Then we have possibly the most spiritually-destructive part of Christmas: The gifts. A small gift to remind us of the Gift of Jesus Christ isn’t the worst thing, however, I think we often forget that Christmas is Jesus’ birthday and think that it’s ours. What would Jesus want for His birthday? He already received gold, frankincense, and myrrh, so what’s left? I believe that He would appreciate it most if we gave gifts to the Church and to the homeless. Why not give to the Church or a philanthropic organization in someone’s honor? That way, your gift to them is actually treasure in their heavenly account.

How about our children? How can we teach them how to celebrate a Christian Christmas without taking out all the fun for them? Maybe we could get them different types of presents than they would receive for their birthdays. Spiritual gifts, such as icons or crosses, for example. We should definitely teach them to give to the poor, so a gift in their honor to the poor is definitely worth doing. Maybe buying them an experience, where you participate with them, rather than a toy they will soon get sick of. 

We need to get creative in a way that allows those who do not fully understand the gravity of this feast to begin to learn the meaning of Christmas, while keeping from feeling excluded from the festivities of the holiday. In time, we should make a transition from the emotional to the spiritual, not forgetting that some of our brethren are not as spiritually advanced, while others may be more attuned to the spiritual implications of our Lord’s birth. At the end of the day, the Church knows what’s best for our salvation – how to get us to truly understand the meaning of Christmas – so let’s not ignore the instruction that She gives us on how to prepare for the feast.

With the world in the state that it is in today, many people are not so excited about Christmas this year. Families are not able to come together for Christmas dinner from fear of the pandemic. Many have lost loved ones from one thing or another. There just isn’t a feeling of peace and joy right now.

If gathering for Christmas dinner with family and friends is the cause of your joy, then I can see how you would be very disappointed with Christmas this year. If you’ve lost someone close to you, I understand why holiday gatherings may be difficult for you. If you don’t have the resources to buy your family presents this year, I feel your frustration.

There are many reasons that your Christmas might be ruined this year, but one reason that Christmas can never be ruined; Christ is born.

If you have lost a loved one (either recently or in the past), consider that if Christ wasn’t born, your loved one would be in Hades right now, but because Christ died for us, they might be in Paradise instead. Are you mad at God because they died? Let’s not forget that unless we die, we cannot live. I am not trying to downplay anyone’s grief. God knows that loosing a loved one can be the most difficult thing we ever go through, but let’s look at it through the proper lenses. Christ’s birth should not make it sadder, but more bearable. 

Are you poor? So were Mary and Joseph when they traveled from place to place looking for somewhere to give birth to Christ. So were the shepherds who rejoiced in the fields at the news of the Savior’s birth. So were the 14,000 infants of Bethlehem who were slayed at the hands of Herod. 

Are you upset because Christmas dinner isn’t going to be what it once was? I’ll save you a seat at Christ’s birthday Supper, which will be held at His holy house, with the most amazing guest list, where we will serve food that is priceless. This food grants immortality and makes us gods.

If Christmas isn’t going to bring us joy and peace this year, or if we are not looking forward to it as we have in previous years, we may want to examine what it is we are celebrating in Christmas. It is the feast the brings “peace and good will among men” (cf. Luke 2:14). It is the feast that made the angels in heaven rejoice along with the shepherd of the field – the feast that brought heaven and earth together. What are you celebrating that is getting in the way of experiencing this peace and joy? If you are not feeling joyful this Christmas, then be a witness to all of your family and friends that all of those previous Christmases, where you enjoyed presents and family and dinners and parties were all false hope and a lie, just to let you down in the future. Tell them, “Run to Christ while you can so that you can experience true joy!” Know, yourself, that it is not too late and that our Lord is waiting for you!

The Nativity of Christ is a feast for the underdog, the poor, the destitute, the lonely, the afflicted, the oppressed, the hopeless. If we have Christ, it is impossible for us to be any of those things, because we are rich beyond belief, inheritors of the Kingdom, sons and daughters of God, sharers in the nature of Jesus Christ. God is love and His incarnation is an expression of His love and mercy towards us. 

This Christmas, let us not sit in pity, thinking of ourselves and our misery. Let us go, first to church to receive the blessing from the Cause of blessings, Christ our God, and then let us take that blessing and share it with those we love, and those who we don’t know enough to love yet. If Christmas is romantic for you, prepare to get your heart broken. If it is a spiritual experience – based on welcoming the theanothropos (Godman) Jesus Christ into your soul and body – it is a time to be elevated. He who took on our weak nature elevates our humanity and places it at the Right Hand of the Father in Heaven. Rejoice, for God is with us!


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"All of creation is a burning bush of God's energies."
Saint Gregory Palamas