Christians of the Orthodox Faith have developed many meaningful customs which are associated with the feasts and fasts of the Church Year. These are especially recognizable during the feast of the Nativity of Jesus Christ.
One of the most prominent of these customs among the people who emigrated from the Carpathian mountain region, is the Holy Night Supper. Each village retains its own variations regarding the actual ritual, but all the customs in general enrich the Christmas Eve Supper. Many of these customs have been handed·down by word of mouth. Others have been forgotten. Many are perpetuated here in America by second and third generation of Orthodox Christians. Though it is traditionally served at home it has become customary in some Orthodox churches preserve this family tradition where parishioners bring their favorite Nativity Lenten food and share with all present. This family tradition began because it is in danger of being lost since families no longer live close together and few have the time to cook the necessary dishes. The priest who is the father of the church family performs the prayer ritual.
The entire drama of events, associated with the “Birth of Christ” at Christmas, is re·enacted through the customs at the “Holy Night Supper.” The Advent season does not conclude until the feast of Christmas. The Lenten rule of abstinence from meat and dairy products is strictly observed. Therefore, the Holy Night Supper consists of lenten foods.
Traditionally, the entire family prepares for the Holy Supper on the vigil of Christmas by washing themselves. The clean body is reflective of an unblemished soul and reminds us of the special state of grace, the result of having received the Holy Eucharist in Church during the Advent season.
The Supper begins at about the time the first star appears in the sky. The entire family assembles in the dining room. The star represents the star of Bethlehem. The “gazda” or master of the home proceeds to feed the animals with a generous portion of food. This custom reminds us of the animals present In the stable at the birth of Christ. The father spreads hay or straw in the dining room. As he does this, special prayers are recited. He greets the family with the words: “Christ is Born,” to which all reply, “Glorify Him!”
The dining room represents the cave and manger of Bethlehem, the humble surroundings of the Lord’s birth. The four legs of the table are tied with rope or chain by the father. This represents the asking of blessings and protection from all corners of the world. The chain symbolizes the unity of love which prevails among the members of the family.
The mother of the house sprinkles all present with holy water. She also sprinkles all the livestock In the barn and the animals in the home. She gives each of the animals some sugar or salt and plenty of feed. Candles are lighted on the table, as well as on the Christmas tree. The tree represents that one from which Adam and Eve had eaten. The candles remind us of Christ the “light of the World” at the time of His Birth. A candle is placed in the window as a Sign of welcome to any stranger or traveler who seeks shelter.
A clean white linen cloth is placed on the table. The linen represents the swaddling clothes with which the Mother of God clothed the Infant Child. Four candles are placed on the table symbolizing Christ and the three wise men. A manger scene is also placed on the table.
During the initial prayers by the father, blessed incense is burned on hot coals or charcoal. It reminds us of the gift of frankincense and myrrh. The smoke symbolically elevates the prayers to the throne of God. An empty chair is set at, the table in memory of deceased family members. It also reminds us of those family members who are unable to be present at the Supper. Members of the family who are absent, represent those people who were not present at the birth of Christ.
According to the custom, the father or the eldest son leads the family in prayer, in a kneeling position. This reminds us of the adoration of the Christ Child by the shepherds and wise men. The prayer expresses gratitude of God for His blessings during the past year. Included in the prayer are special petitions for health, happiness, longevity, peace and love. The father then blesses the food with holy water.
The father offers the traditional Christmas toast with a drink of sweet wine or brandy. All members of the family drink the toast, including the children. The mother gives a tooth of garlic, dipped in honey, to each member. She makes the sign of the cross on the forehead of the father, and on each of the other members of the family according seniority. The honey is symbolic of the sweetness of life, while the garlic represents the bitterness. The Trinity is invoked to fortify all family members against the tribulations of life in the coming year.
The father takes the home-made bread, blesses it, and distributes a piece to everyone. The sign of the cross is made with the bread, before it is consumed. Customarily, twelve traditional foods are served, representing the twelve Apostles. The food is served from a common bowl, from which all eat, as it is passed-around. This is symbolical of the family unity. The following lenten foods are served at the Supper. They may vary according to each village, county, and even from each household: (Only 12 of the following foods are served)
Sounds like a feast instead of a fast, doesn’t it? Only a small portion of the food is consumed.
After dinner, the father reads the narrative of Christ’s Birth from the Scripture. A prayer of thanksgiving is recited, including thanks for the most precious gift of all, the only begotten Son of God, Jesus Christ. Carols are sung as the children eagerly hunt for pennies and small toys hidden in the straw, or in some secluded place of the home. Later, gifts are exchanged.During this time many carols are sung reminding the family of the birth of our Savior in the cave in Bethlehem. Then after the singing of the carols the family, like the shepherds, hasten to attend worship services.
Come, and let us see!
Bethlehem has opened Eden: come, and let us see! We have found joy hidden! Come, and let us take possession of the paradise within the cave.
There the unwatered stem has appeared, from which forgiveness blossoms forth! There is found the undug well from which David longed to drink of old, and there the Virgin has borne a child, and at once the thirst of Adam and David is made to cease.
Therefore let us hasten to this place where for our sake the eternal God was born as a little child!
We have begun to incorporate this into our Nativity celebration at Holy Cross between the Vesperal Liturgy and the Nativity Vigil on Christmas Eve. This is a great way to solemnize this lenten meal together as a parish family. If there are any other Nativity customs from the various Orthodox traditions that you come from, please do not hesitate to let me know as it would be great to incorporate more of “our” traditions into our Holy Cross celebration of Nativity.
This article was taken and adapted from a short article called “Holy Night Supper Customs” and from the following website: