I can’t think of a holiday more exciting for a child than Christmas. So, imagine, if you will, what it must be like having two Christmases. In my family we had two Christmases, yes, two, it was amazing… in my young mind I believed I had to be one of the luckiest kids in the world.
Two Christmases, how can that be you ask? My family belonged to an Old Calendar Orthodox church, think Russian or Greek Orthodox, our church was a sort of hybrid of the two. Most, but not all, Orthodox churches around the world follow the Old or Julian Calendar. The Old Calendar is 13 days behind the Gregorian Calendar, our civil calendar, decreed in 1582 by Pope Gregory XIII (envisioning papal infallibility he apparently had that kind of authority in those days). December 25th on the Old Calendar is January 7th on the “new calendar” we all go by. We called the January 7th Christmas, “Russian Christmas”. My dad’s side of the family is Carpatho-Rusyn, a nationless ethnic group that at one time was part of either the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Ukraine, or Slovakia depending on what point in history you pick. The Carpathian Mountains, cutting across much of eastern Europe, are the homeland of the Carpatho-Rusyn.
On December 25th we celebrated “Western” (and I don’t mean cowboy) Christmas with my mother’s side of the family (they were Presbyterian) exchanging gifts and celebrating with a big family meal at my grandparent’s house. We’d get the bulk on our presents on that day too. Russian Christmas, however, had a completely different tone and feel. The insanity that was the build-up to Western Christmas was over, our Christmas seemed more in keeping with the true spirit of the holiday. If Christmas fell on a school day, hurray no school! Rather than saying “Merry Christmas” we’d say: Christos Razdajetsja! (Christ is Born) and the person you were greeting would reply Slavite Jeho! (Glorify Him). Even as a young child I recognized the meaningful difference. And most of all, Russian Christmas was a festive celebration which always included our large extended church family, many of whom had been friends for decades. It was an evolving party with good food and plenty to drink!
It all began on Christmas Eve (January 6th) with “Holy Night Supper” (Svjatyj Vecer) at my grandparent’s (Serko)house. The meal consisted of dishes in varying shades of brown and tan: fried fish, mashed potatoes with bean gravy, mushroom soup, pierogi both fried and baked (my favorite), and prune compote. It was a simple but incredibly satisfying meal prepared entirely by my grandmother. But, when the meal was over that’s when the fun began…
The Carpatho-Rusyns, among other peoples of the region, have a Christmas tradition best translated as “The Bethlehems”. The Bethlehems were like Christmas carolers, always male (that changed in the 80s) but dressed as shepherds and angels. Shepherds had a “biblical shepherd” look wrapped in blankets with head coverings tied with a rope. Beards were glued-on to fresh faces yet to see a razor stuck in place with a stinky and no doubt toxic glue. Angels were dressed in white robes adorned with colorful ribbons wearing tall cylindrical hats with the three barred Orthodox cross on the front. Bethlehems went to every household in the parish beginning Christmas Eve performing a skit in the Carpatho-Rusyn language and singing traditional religious songs announcing the “good news” of the birth of Christ. Every male member of my family was a Bethlehem: my grandfather, my father and uncle, me and my brothers, and my nephew. I can still recite the entire skit including the songs by heart to this day.
On Christmas Eve we’d start at our priest’s house and work our way through the neighborhoods surrounding the church. Even in my time many church members still lived within walking distance of the church, you literally walked in and out of one house and onto the house next door and so on. These were residential neighborhoods but in reality were an undefined ethnic ghetto.
My role was the angel tasked with knocking on the house front door. When the door opened I’d belt-out “Christos Razdajetsja” (Christ is Born!) and proceed to tell why we were there and then we’d break into a song, the “Tropar of The Nativity” always sung for the holiday both in church services and family homes. As the skit went on we’d each tell a bit of the story of Christ’s birth and finally came the cry “Guba hodytu…” summoning the star of the show… the Guba! The Guba was a swarthy character, a bit scary to the young kids in the house dressed in an old goatskin coat that by the late 1960s had to be at least 50 years old and looked it! The Guba entered in a rather menacing manner declaring his good looks and handsome beard carrying a large basket and metal can for collecting money. His part in the skit culminated with tracking down the youngest girl in the family pinching her cheek. My job was to admonish him causing him to pout and announce he would take a nap. We then burst into a folk song that in essence said: “give us food and drink and a little money or we’ll take your pots and pans with us” or something to that effect. It was of course all in good fun. People relished the arrival of the Bethlehems, for many it meant that Christmas was finally here drawing attention to the true meaning of the celebration.
Speaking of drink… in practically every home, the man of the house wanted to have a drink with us and our adult chaperones. The offering of food and drink is a mark of friendship and hospitality sometimes difficult to refuse. By drink, I mean a shot of whiskey. Most of us were barely into our teens, some a little older but all underage. Regardless, a few drinks was part of the experience and we never got into trouble for accepting the offer. Only problem, over the course of the evening the cumulative effect of even a few sips made the trip uphill to the church for the midnight service no small task. Drinking a bit too much was a rite of passage that usually only happened once (well maybe twice). But, on many occasions it was our chaperones who got carried away with the drinking. In this case we’d be the ones retrieving the men still several houses behind us.
Regretfully that tradition has long passed for many reasons not the least of which is the dispersion of the community to the suburbs. To my family and Orthodox friends both near and far Christos Razdajetsja!