Christmas Eve in Russia and Ukraine
While some Orthodox observe a total fast for 24 hours before Christmas, most eat a simple morning meal on Christmas Eve (6 January) and then nothing afterward until after attending a Church liturgy which begins in the evening and usually lasts into the early morning hours.
The breakfast eaten on Christmas Eve morning is most often a special porridge called kutya, made of wheatberries or other grains which symbolize hope and immortality. Some recipes include honey and poppy seeds in the cereal representing happiness, success, and peace.
Not all families eat an evening meal, electing to fast until the end of the Christmas liturgy. For those who do, the meal is called the “Holy Supper” and this is often observed among Western Orthodox Christians as a meal served at the church prior to the start of the overnight Christmas liturgy.
Next photo below: Ukrainian believers light candles made from beeswax upon entering St Andrew’s Church in Kyiv (Kiev) for Christmas liturgy. The Orthodox faith across Eastern Europe is experiencing a revival of unheard of proportions, especially among young adults under the age of 30 and church services, which take place standing as there are no pews in Orthodox tradition, are filled to overflowing.
A Russian Christmas Eve meal is meatless but festive. A ceremony involving the blessing of the home is frequently observed. Traditionally, the “Holy Supper” consists of 12 different foods, symbolic of the 12 Apostles. Although there was also some variation in the foods from place to place, the following is a good summary of what was typically served. The twelve foods usually are:
1 Mushroom soup or Borsch (red beet soup)
2 Lenten bread (“pagach”)
3 Grated garlic
4 Bowl of honey
5 Baked fish
6 Fresh Apricots, Oranges, Figs and Dates
8 Kidney beans (slow cooked all day) with shredded potatoes, lots of garlic; or stuffed cabbage (vegetable and rice stuffing)
10 Parsley Potatoes (boiled new potatoes with chopped parsley and margarine)
11 Bobal’ki (biscuits combined with sauerkraut or poppyseed with honey)
12 Red wine (non sweet)
The emphasis is not on a bounty of food as this type of consumption would betray the purpose of the 40 day Nativity fast which has been observed. Rather the purpose of this meal, which remains meatless except for the baked fish, is to prepare hearts via the symbolism of each food represented.
The meal begins with the Lord’s Prayer, led by the father of the family. A prayer of thanksgiving for all the blessings of the past year is said and then prayers for the coming year are offered. The head of the family greets those present with the traditional Christmas greeting “Christ is Born!” The family members respond: “Glorify Him!”
Each person present is blessed with oil made in the form of a cross on each forehead, saying: “In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, may you have joy and many good things in life and in the new year.”
Next everyone takes a piece of bread and dips it first in honey and then in garlic. The combination of honey and garlic is a symbol that life is lived by God’s grace, accepting both joy (sweetness) and sorrow (bitter garlic). Then a single small toast of red (non sweet) wine is made to represent that after enduring all which life brings, there is the hope of eternal life because of the birth of Christ, the meaning of Christmas.
Contrary to many articles on the internet, gifts are NOT exchanged after this supper. Overwhelmingly, Russians exchange gifts on New Year’s as a sign of good will and love for the coming year.
On Christmas day, after a visit to church which is usually a service that began in the late evening and lasted until early morning hours, Russians return home and prepare a celebratory meal which breakes the 40 day Nativity fast during which things like meat, dairy products, eggs, oil, alcohol and sweets were prohibited.