Icon instead of Nativity scene

Artur Stelmasiak

In the Eastern Orthodox Church there re no Nativity scenes: mangers or cribs, but there is a traditional icon of the Nativity before which the faithful pray, bow and which they kiss. Contemplation of the Christmas icon helps believers to understand the message of Christmas. However, most differences between Christmas in the Eastern Orthodox Church and Christmas in the Catholic Church result from the tradition and not from the very essence of experiencing this feast.

Different date

The majority of Christians of the Eastern rite (Orthodox and Greek Catholics) celebrate Christmas 13 days after Catholics. It means that Catholics hardly remember Christmas when the Eastern Orthodox believers prepare to celebrate it because Christmas Eve in the East is celebrated on 6 January.
In Poland most Orthodox believers live in the region of Bialystok. All feasts are celebrated there according to the so-called old style (the Julian calendar). But the Orthodox diasporas in central and western Poland follow more and more the so-called new style according to which all feasts (except Easter) are celebrated together with Catholics. The fact that Orthodox parishes follow the western Gregorian calendar results from practical reasons. Believers have free days and they can participate in the services without any problems.
In the region of Podlasie this situation causes no serious problems. In some tows and villages, where the Orthodox believers constitute a considerable part, people have no serious problems to celebrate Christmas in January. It is normal and nobody is astonished by the situation. In the region of Bialystok the Orthodox church children and youth are not obliged to go to school on these days and the adults usually get days off. 'I have always had double Christmas', smilingly says Kasia from Bielsko Podlaskie, currently a student in Warsaw. 'We had days off at Catholic Christmas and our Orthodox feasts. Although classes are held at our Christmas in January teachers try to organise classes in such a way that those who celebrate Christmas do not have much to catch up with later', Kasia explains, 'There were no tests and new and difficult themes', she adds. In some parts of the Bialystok region, where the majority of children are Orthodox, no classes are held at all. Children have no classes or have shorter lessons the day before 6 January. Almost all educational centres are closed. It is more difficult for the adults but they also find some solution. 'My mother works in a grocer's that is almost non-stop open, but she finds a way out. She works on Christmas, replacing her Catholic colleagues and they work at Orthodox Christmas', Kasia explains.
The Eastern Orthodox believers who celebrate Christmas in the old style and live in other parts of Poland or students living in the centre or in the west of the country have problems with celebrating their feasts. Therefore, in most towns with the Orthodox diasporas, the Orthodox Christmas is celebrated together with the Catholic feast, i.e. according to the Gregorian calendar. In Warsaw Christmas is celebrated in a double way, for example in the cathedral of Mary Magdalene, the old style is obligatory in the lower chapel, and the new style is in the upper chapel. Even Archbishop Sawa, Metropolitan of Warsaw and All Poland, the Polish Autocephalous Orthodox Church, celebrates Christmas with Catholics.

Born in the icon

Like the mangers in churches at Christmas, which brings believers closer to understanding the Nativity, so is the Christmas icon of the Nativity exposed for adoration in the Eastern Orthodox sanctuaries. The Eastern Orthodox Church does not use figurative presentation of people, i.e. sculptures. At the same time for the Orthodox faithful icons mean something more that paintings. The whole holy history is narrated in icons. During Christmas an icon of the Nativity is placed in the centre of every Eastern Orthodox church. And believers bow before it and kiss it. Thus they greet the New Born Child. According to the Eastern tradition icons are continuation of the Revelation.
The Child Jesus is very small in the traditional Nativity icon. It refers to the evangelical parable of the mustard seed. The New Born Christ is always presented in the centre of the icon. Whereas the Mother of God, who is just beside little Jesus, is disproportionately bigger than other figures. In the lower part there is sorrowful Joseph. The theology, which the icon presents, is that Joseph cannot believe what has happened, that the Messiah comes into the world in such miserable conditions. The icon of the Nativity is a stark antithesis of images that we are used to find in the Western art. In the icon we will not see a fabulous Bethlehem, bright in the light of the Christmas star, but we can see a jagged rocky mount, symbolising the difficult world, which man finds unfavourable after his exile from the paradise. The main figure in the icon is Mary whom the Eastern Orthodox Church calls the Theotokos - Mother of God. Hosts of angels, shepherds and the Magi are placed around the rock. The shepherds, who were chosen to pay homage to the Lord on behalf of all Israel, symbolise the Jewish nation.

On the Christmas Eve table

In the Eastern Orthodox Church Christmas is one of the twelve Great Feats and one of the four, which are preceded by fast. On the very day of Christmas Eve a strict fast is obligatory. People do not eat anything for the whole day until Christmas supper, which is meatless. The first dish is still a grey oat dessert in the country. The obligatory dish is kutya (kutia), mixture of wheat, honey, poppy seeds, nuts and dried fruit. Instead of Christmas wafer people eat prosfora, which is holy bread (not consecrated) that is used to celebrate the Eucharist. It is a small bread roll, pie-shaped, with the imprint of Christ and other saints. Each of the two sides of the prosfora symbolises the two natures of Christ: divine and human. On Christmas Day the faithful go to church just after midnight for a vigil of prayer. The main Liturgy begins at 2 or 4 a.m. and lasts over two hours.

"Niedziel" 1/2006

Editor: Tygodnik Katolicki "Niedziela", ul. 3 Maja 12, 42-200 Czestochowa, Polska
Editor-in-chief: Fr Jaroslaw Grabowski • E-mail: redakcja@niedziela.pl