#3 - JRL 7007
RUSSIA CELEBRATING ORTHODOX CHRISTMAS TODAY
MOSCOW, JANUARY 7, 2003, /RIA-NOVOSTI CORRESPONDENT OLGA LIPICH/ -- The Russian Orthodox Church is celebrating Christmas, i.e. the second most important festival after Easter among the Orthodox Church's twelve major festivals.
As the Gospel tradition has it, Roman emperor Augustus, who also ruled the province of Judea, organized a census there, ordering everyone to register at his or her place of birth. Consequently, St. Joseph and the Virgin Mary, who was engaged to him, went to their native town of Bethlehem. There were no vacant rooms at a local hotel; that's why St. Joseph and the Virgin Mary found refuge in a nearby manger; the Church of the Nativity now stands over that site. Christ the Saviour was born there.
Shepherds, who were informed by an angel, were the first to come and worship Jesus. They were followed by wise men, who learned about the birth of Jesus, after observing a rather unusual star, i.e. the Star of Bethlehem, in the skies above. That star led them to the manger.
The Church teaches that Christmas symbolizes reconciliation of Man and God, heralding Christ's expiatory feat, as well as the renewal of Man's nature that was corrupted by the sins of his fore-fathers.
The imposing Church of the Nativity marks the site of Christ's birth in Bethlehem today. It is visited by Christians from all over the world.
Orthodox Christmas is preceded by a lengthy fast, which begins November 28, lasting 40 consecutive days until January 6.
Devout believers eat nothing on January 6, subsequently going to churches by 10.00 p.m. Evening services, morning services and divine services are held there. When the first star symbolizing the Star of Bethlehem rises, believers can eat sochivo, a kind of wheat cereal replete with fruits and honey. Hence the Russian name for Christmas Eve, i.e. sochelnik.
Orthodox believers congratulate each other on Christmas January 7, also preparing for Communion. A Christmas vespers service will begin at the cathedral of Christ the Savior at 4.00 p.m. today.
The people of Russia used to celebrate Orthodox Christmas on a grand scale, also eating lavishly. Children used to carry a small manger box from house to house; that manger was covered with color paper, also featuring fastened puppets. The manger was used to stage puppet shows re-enacting episodes of the Nativity. Children also sang during their performances, getting presents in return.
Christmas-tide begins right after Orthodox Christmas. Single-day fasts are abolished on Wednesdays and Fridays over the January 8-17 period. This is a time of special joy, with Orthodox believers continuing to celebrate Christmas.