Culture and Religion, Knowledge

How Our Orthodox Neighbours Celebrate Christmas Eve

Quite soon, on January 6, we will be celebrating Epiphany, or Three Kings’ Day in Poland; our Eastern neighbours will then be getting ready for the Orthodox Christmas, which will take place one day later. It is a good time to discuss this topic with your children and take this opportunity to add some interesting facts about the similarities and differences between the Catholic and Orthodox Christmas.

The first difference is fundamental: although the feast is common, we celebrate it on different days. The difference of thirteen days between Christmas celebrated by Eastern and Western Christians is a consequence of two different calendars being used. The Orthodox Church has never accepted the calendar reform introduced by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582 (the so called ‘New Style’ Calendar). The gap between the old and the new style is exactly 13 days.

In Poland, a Christmas Eve dinner starts with a prayer and sharing the Christmas wafer (Polish opłatek). The Orthodox tradition does not include the wafer, only a prosfora – a small bun, which is shared. On the Sunday before Christmas Eve, the priest always distributes prosfora, which is used in the liturgy, among the believers.

Bowl with kutia - traditional Christmas sweet meal in Ukraine, Belarus and Poland, on wooden table, on bright background

On Christmas Eve, Ukrainian housewives prepare twelve dishes, just like Polish housewives do. There can be more, of course, but there is a catalogue of absolute essentials. Many of the dishes are well-known in Poland and sometimes they are downright identical to those served during a Polish Christmas Eve dinner.

Kutia, the main course in the East, is a must on the table; it is kutia that the Christmas Eve meal begins with. Kutia symbolises unity with God and the world of the dead. That is why it is left on the table for the rest of the night as a symbolic treat for the souls of the deceased.

Kračun (a round loaf of bread, often home-made) symbolises the death and resurrection of Jesus, just like a seed which, if sown, will end up bearing new fruit.

Peas, beans – a symbol of Christian family life, a symbol of unity in the family (family members are close to one other like peas in a pod).

Usually, the menu also includes kapusnyak (sauerkraut soup) or borscht with pampushki (meatless yeast-raised buns), cholopchi (cabbage rolls), varenyky (dumplings) and uzvar (dried fruit compote). Naturally, there is also a fish. The fish is a sign of Christians, a symbol of Jesus Christ. In addition to that, it reminds the believers of the sacrament of baptism. Moreover, the ancient Greek word for fish, ichthys, is an acrostic, i.e. a word formed from the initial letters of other words. In fact, the ancient Greek word ichthys concealed the words Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour.

 

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There is a lot of garlic on the dinner table during the Eastern Christmas Eve. Garlic with salt is one of the dishes and symbolises health, strength and purification. In some homes there’s a tradition of rubbing garlic on one’s face to ensure good health in the coming year. Using garlic is also a symbolic cleansing of sins.

An Orthodox Christmas Eve is similar to Catholic in that it starts and ends with a prayer and is accompanied by Christmas carols. So, next week, we’ll continue with the Christmas theme and we’ll tell you a bit more about Ukrainian Christmas carols, including one world-famous carol in particular.

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