OLPH Church
Our Lady of Perpetual Help
Byzantine Catholic Church

Christmas Eve  (back to Traditions) 

Christmas Eve in the Old Country was often called the Eve of Bounty or Starlit Eve. It is a day of magic and enchantment. Snow is very important because it means that next years crops will be good. The Christmas tree which plays such an important part in America is also prevalent among the Slavs, but instead of plastic, metallic, and the usual gaudy tinsel ornaments, the Slavs decorate their trees with fruit, candy, colored ribbons, toys, candles, and other items that can be used later.

On the afternoon of Christmas Eve, the whole household assembles in the living room, and then proceeds to the stable, cow houses and barns, in solemn procession, carrying bread and salt, and a bowl filled with beans. The beans are placed in the cracks and crevices in the walls to protect the house from fire. The bread and salt are destined for the cattle, sheep, pigs, and chickens; no living creature is forgotten. Returning to the house the parents take a bowl of water, sweetened with honey and sprinkle all their unmarried daughters, thus casting a spell that will ensure for them husbands whose honesty is as transparent as water, and whose tempers are as sweet as the honey it contains.

The festival begins with the traditional Christmas Eve Supper. In arranging the seating, the father as the head of the household is seated at the head of the table and the family is seated around him. Be- sides the seating for the entire family, there is always one empty seat which is reserved for the unexpected guest for whom, in the spirit of Slavic hospitality, there should always be room (comp. Lk.2:7).

Before the supper begins, the father lights the candle, symbolizing the appearance of the star, and leads the singing of the festive Troparion, "Your birth, 0 Christ our God" (Rozdestvo Tvoje Christe Boze Nas) with the entire family gathered around the table. He then extends his Christmas wishes in words similar to these: "I greet you with the Feast of Christ's Nativity and wish that the Infant Jesus shower upon all of you His choicest blessings. May we all live in health, peace, and happiness and may we all celebrate another Christmas together. A Merry and Blessed Christmas! Christ is Born!"

The father then embraces and kisses each member of the family, and as he expresses his wishes for good health and happiness, he shares a piece of bread (prosphora) dipped in honey with them. This sharing of the bread symbolizes the sharing of life with Jesus and the honey represents God's blessings (comp. Ps. 81:17), the source of true happiness.

The father or the head of the house breaks the "Oplatek", a wafer of unleavened wheat flour to show each member of the family and guest, that he is willing to share with all. A bit of shredded garlic is sprinkled on the wafer and this is covered with a spread of honey. This custom is traced to medieval times and its religious significance symbolizes the sweetness of Christ's birth, the bitterness of His Life on Calvary, and the Glory of His Resurrection. Next comes the traditional toast by the head of the family. It is custom to pass the drink around so that everyone will at least wet his lips. No one is excluded, even babies partake.

In the Slav home hay was always placed under the tablecloth and under the table in commemoration of the Manger of Bethlehem, and a sheaf kept in the corner to assure good crops next year. The Holy Supper requires special preparation and setting. In the middle of the table, a large round loaf of white bread decorated with traditional symbols similar to the Paska of Easter and called the "Krachun" (0. SI. Karachun-n a t i v i t y), is placed between two candles which are lit during the dinner. This explains the derivation of our popular name for Christmas, "Krachun."

When this observance is completed the customary ten course feast follows, consisting of "Bobalky" (small round buns of raised dough coated with a poppy seed and honey mixture; "Kolac" (Raisin Stollen); "Pirohy" (ravioli stuffed individually with prune jam, cottage cheese, mashed potatoes, ground cabbage, etc.); "Halupky" (drop dumplings); and the remaining items reaching ten in number. Naturally only a small portion is eaten since fancy cakes, mixed nuts and wine generally end the feast.

When it is nearly midnight all the grownups of the family get ready to go to church. At midnight the bells ring out. Midnight Liturgy is held at the church. In many places the people all go to church together. The men lead the way, carrying torches, to tread down the snow. The girls dress themselves in all their best, with garlands of artificial flowers and gilded leaves in their hair. Not one of them would ever dream of putting a winter coat over all that finery. If worst comes to worst, they may wrap themselves in a woolen shawl, which they would take off before entering the church.