Have Faith: East and West

Not everyone celebrates Christmas on Dec. 25.

Traditional Ukranian Christmas Eve dinner. Courtesy Ann Beams.

From time to time, Connie Berry will bring in a guest writer for her “Have Faith” column. This week’s columnist is Teresa Kruszewski, writing about “Little Christmas.”

December 2017, the Friday before Christmas, I was taking care of some last-minute errands. Each place I stopped, an exchange of “Happy Holidays” occurred. If time allowed, I would inquire, “Do you celebrate Christmas?” Depending on the reply, we would wish each other “Merry Christmas.” At one particular stop, the woman with whom I was conversing had a reply unlike all the others: “Yes, in January; I do not celebrate anything in December.”

This quick conversation triggered a family memory; traditions from childhood of what my mother and grandmother referred to as “Little Christmas.” All I could remember was that our tree would stay up until then.

In the search for understanding how folks who have settled in this country from all over the world celebrate Christmas, I found, there is no simple answer.

Each person I spoke with had a unique tradition and way of celebrating. I began to search for clarity about the traditions of Jan. 5, 6, and 7. The Eastern Rite and Western Roman Catholic Christians are in union with Rome and the pope; the Eastern Orthodox churches are not. There are also two primary calendars that impact these religious calendars. The Gregorian, named after Pope Gregory XIII and introduced in October 1582, is the most widely used civil calendar in almost all countries. The Julian calendar, proposed by Julius Caesar, took effect in January 45 B.C., and has since been replaced by the Gregorian calendar. It is important to know that most branches of the Eastern Orthodox Church still use the Julian calendar for calculating the date of Easter, upon which the timing of all the other movable feasts depends. The Julian calendar is 13 days behind the Gregorian calendar.

I returned a week later to ask the young Serbian woman if I could interview her for this story. She declined, but stated that there are many Serbian and Russian Orthodox folks on the Island who celebrate in the same way. When I asked her which church she belonged to, she said there was no time to go, as she is always working. (I found out later the closest church to Martha’s Vineyard is St. Sava Serbian Orthodox Cathedral in Cambridge.)

The Serbian name for Christmas Eve, Jan. 6, during the day is Badnji dan. After sunset it becomes Badnje veče.. On this day, the family makes preparations for the coming celebration. The day is festive, copious, and diverse in foods, although they are typically prepared in accordance with the rules of fasting. Connie Berry of The MV Times put me in touch with Vukasin Jaric, a Serbian gentleman who’s worked summers on Martha’s Vineyard for three years and now lives in Boston. He told me about his traditions.

“Our celebration is connected to a type of oak tree called ‘Badnjak’ that we burn the day before Christmas,” Mr. Jaric said. In the evening, a man of the family (Položajnik) brings their Badnjak into the house and places it on the fire. As the log burns, the quality of sparks from the log will signify how the family crops will be, how many children you will have, good luck and well-wishes for the family.

Mr. Jaric continued, “Early Christmas morning (Božić), when Položajnik returns and enters the house, he says, ‘Hristos se rodi — Christ has been born.’ And we answer, ‘Vaistinu se rodi — truly He is born.’ He stays for the breakfast and meal. We do not exchange gifts; the only gifts are to the person that brings the news; that is to partake in the traditional feast.”

Mr. Jaric said, “We go to church the day before Christmas, and at dawn of Christmas Day. We follow the Julian calendar. Jan. 6 is Christmas Eve, and Jan. 7 is Christmas Day. We do not eat meat or dairy on Christmas Eve.”

My grandmother Anna was born in 1911, a first-generation American born to Ukrainian parents, the oldest of five and the only daughter. Her brothers, Bill, Mike, Steve, and John, would follow.

Exactly when and why my great-grandparents moved from their country to the United States is unknown to me, but I can make the assumption that they were looking for a better life. They settled in Newark, N.J., where they sought comfort with folks of similar traditions and backgrounds as they established their new lives. They belonged to an Eastern Rite Church, a Ukrainian Catholic Church that followed the Julian calendar.

Anna’s education was limited; she made it only through the sixth grade, as she needed to help with her family and brothers. Over the years, as she raised her own family, she would continue the family traditions.

My cousin, Ann Beams, of Cranford, N.J., continues passing these wonderful traditions to the next generations; she is the daughter of Uncle Bill. I asked her what she remembers.

“Little Christmas is the traditional end of the Christmas season, 12 days later on Jan. 6. In the Western Church (most think of the Roman Rite), it commemorates the visit of the Magi and is often called Three Kings Day.

“The Eastern Rite officially calls it the Feast of the Epiphany (but we still think of it as Little Christmas). This feast commemorates the Baptism of Jesus by St. John the Baptist in the River Jordan.”

Ann told me that until sometime in the early 1960s, our church followed the Julian calendar, making our liturgical celebrations 14 days later than the Western church, which followed the Gregorian calendar. We celebrated Christmas on Dec. 25, but we also observed it on Jan. 7.

The Western Church celebrates Three Kings Day on Jan. 6, or the Feast of the Epiphany, which is the veneration of the newborn Christ by the wise Magi, as the event that marks the manifestation of the divinity of Christ to “the nations.” Father Nagle of Good Shepherd Roman Catholic Parish said, “The Three Kings or wise men from the East set out on a journey to find the new king, bringing with them gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. This day is also referred to as Little Christmas, as the giving of gifts is traditional among some families on this day to honor the wise men who brought gifts to the Christ Child. Families will celebrate the Nativity (birth) of Christ on Dec. 25, and give gifts on Jan. 6th (Little Christmas) to continue the tradition of the Three Kings.”

The manger scene (créche) outside St. Augustine’s Catholic Church in Vineyard Haven is set up early. Father Nagle explains the placement of the statues: “We put Mary and Joseph and the shepherds out just before the birth. We place the baby Jesus in the créche scene on the 25th. We have the wise men at a distance, because they weren’t going to show up for a few more weeks, arriving on Jan. 6.”

The bridge between East and West ceremonies and traditions seem to be the Twelve Days of Christmas, or Twelvetide. Father Chip Seadale of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Edgartown said, “The Christmas season is 12 days, beginning with the Nativity of Jesus Christ, ‘Christmas Day,’ and ending on Jan. 5. The Feast of the Epiphany begins on Jan. 6, and is the period that takes us to Lent. During this season, the Gospel will center around the occasion of baptism. God reveals Jesus as the beloved son who is now empowered through the spirit to usher in the kingdom.”

Along with church celebrations, there are foods of great significance. Ann reminded me of more traditions: “There are days that are Black Fast Days, including Christmas Eve; no eating dairy or meat. On this night we observe 12 dishes for the 12 apostles. We usually put straw under part of the white tablecloth for the manger,” Ann said. “When our cast of characters arrive, the youngest lights the white candle signifying the star. It should be in a loaf of Kolach (bread) that signifies Christ. This is the family’s favorite part of the holiday because we are together, and tradition seems to mean a lot to everyone.”

This story continues today. People are moving to America for a better way of life, looking for community that brings comfort with tradition, and a place of worship that joins families together.

Over the years our traditions are modified and embellished, the facts and logistics melt away, leaving only pleasant thoughts and emotions to linger. They bring optimism and hope; the memories inspired are beautiful, and may reunite us with loved ones no longer with us.

To those of you who observe the Epiphany, I hope your celebration was joyous!


Special thanks to Father Edward Healey, the ecumenical officer in the Fall River Diocese, and John E. Kearns Jr., director of the office of communications.