There are two times every year in Russia when the menu at the Kremlin restaurants, the cafeterias at the Federal Duma, and the schools across Russia make dramatic culinary adjustments. Even Western restaurant chains like TGIF, etc, adopt some elements of the Orthodox 40 day fast at Christmas and Easter.
For Orthodox Christians in the West, with Christmas on 25 December, began the 40 day Nativity fast on 15 November and then ended on 24 December. In the East Orthodox Christians, with Christmas on 7 January, the annual 40 day Nativity Fast began on Sunday, 29 November and will end on Christmas morning, 7 January.
The Nativity Fast is one of the four Canonical Fasting Seasons in the Church year. This is a joyous fast in anticipation of the Nativity of Christ. That celebration of joy is the reason it is less strict than other fasting periods. The fast is divided into two periods. The 1st period is November 15th through December 19th when the traditional fasting discipline (no meat, dairy, fish, wine, and oil) is observed. There is dispensation given for wine and oil on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Similarly, fish, wine, and oil are permitted on Saturdays and Sundays. The 2nd period is December 20th through 24th when the traditional fasting discipline (no meat, dairy, fish, wine, and oil) is observed. There is dispensation given for wine and oil only on Saturday and Sunday during this period.
Here are the guidelines:
– Meat, Dairy, Fish, Wine, and Oil are generally off limits except for certain days.
– Abstinence includes refraining from the food and drink mentioned above, as well as from smoking. The Eucharistic Fast means abstaining from at least the previous midnight for communing at a morning Liturgy.
Acceptable exemptions to the fast:
– When given an exemption by a priest.
– When traveling.
– When a guest in someone’s home.
– When guests are in your home.
– For legitimate health reasons.
– Young children are exempt.
– Elderly are exempt (although often they are the most pious).
– When fasting would call undue attention–the fast is for personal discipline, not to make others uncomfortable.
– When a woman is pregnant.
Do Not Fast between December 25 and January 5 (even on Wed and Fri); if you are pregnant or nursing a newborn; during serious illness; without prayer; without alms-giving; according to your own will without guidance from your spiritual father.
What items do you give up during a fast:
– Meat of any kind (except fish on certain days).
– Oil in cooking.
– Wine, beer, vodka….any kind of alcohol.
– Dairy products.
– Egg products.
– All parties and celebrations are delayed until after 7 January.
– Some couples give up sex completely, others curtail the frequency during the fast.
– It is a good time to try to give up unhealty habits like smoking, swearing, etc.
“Wow, this is strict!” some will say. So, what is the purpose of the Orthodox fast? The purpose of fasting is to focus on the things that are above, the Kingdom of God. It is a means of putting on virtue in reality, here and now. Through it we are freed from dependence on worldly things. We fast faithfully and in secret, not judging others, and not holding ourselves up as an example.
Fasting in itself is not a means of pleasing God. Fasting is not a punishment for our sins. Nor is fasting a means of suffering and pain to be undertaken as some kind of atonement. Christ already redeemed us on His Cross. Salvation is a gift from God that is not bought by our hunger or thirst. We fast to be delivered from carnal passions so that God’s gift of Salvation may bear fruit in us.
We fast and turn our eyes toward God in His Holy Church. Fasting and prayer go together. Fasting is not irrelevant. Fasting is not obsolete, and it is not something for someone else. Fasting is from God, for us, right here and right now. Most of all, we should not devour each other. We ask God to “set a watch and keep the door of our lips.”
– Christ fasted for 40 days in the wilderness, eating only fruits and berries. He spent the time in prayer.
– The fasts are designed to assist one to be more like Christ, spending more time in prayer.
– Every time you feel hungry, instead of eating, say a prayer asking God for discipline in your spiritual life.
– Discipline…in the Orthodox faith one should try to discipline the flesh (body). The flesh leads to sin but the spirit leads to everlasting life.
– Such a prolonged discipline leads to a very joyful celebration to the feast of Christ’s nativity on Christmas day!