Today, of course, is Christmas for those Orthodox Christians on the Old (Julian) Calendar. Until the 1920s, all of Orthodoxy used the Old Calendar, and of course that included all the Orthodox in America. As we’ve discussed, the American media thought that this was thoroughly fascinating, and newspapers often ran articles on “Greek” or “Russian” Christmas. One thing that I’ve noticed, in reading these Christmas accounts, is the diversity of traditions among the Orthodox in various parts of the country.
The Philadelphia Inquirer (12/24/1905) commented on the East-West calendar difference, and then pointed out another distinction:
In the [Western denominations] both the time immediately preceding and the period following Christmas Day are times of feasting. In the Greek Church, on the contrary, the forty days preceding Christmas are set aside as a time of fasting, just as Lent precedes Easter. In the local church the communicants are not required to strictly observe this rule. All that is asked is that they observe the week preceding Christmas as a time of fasting.
I suspect that this laxness in fasting was pretty common in American Orthodox parishes. But people didn’t just universally ignore the fast. The Washington Times (1/7/1912) notes, “Since December Greeks abstained from eating meat.” With the arrival of Christmas, the DC Greeks began to feast, going from house to house. “The most humble peanut vendor is privileged by this custom to enter the home of the wealthiest man in the city and cannot be turned away.”
Children, of course, have always been prominent in Christmas celebrations. On Christmas Eve in the Russian church in Wilkes-Barre, PA, the priest, St. Alexis Toth, held a special event for the children of the parish. From the Wilkes-Barre Times (1/7/1907):
A large Christmas tree, prettily decorated and lighted, had been erected on the platform and after several hymns had been sung the treat consisting of candy and fruit for each child had been distributed by Father Toth, there were several more hymns, including the rendition of “America” in English.
It’s not clear, from the newspaper, whether the Christmas tree was actually inside the temple, or in some other part of the building.
While some Orthodox exchanged gifts on Christmas Day, others waited until Old Calendar New Year’s Day. From the Galveston Daily News (1/8/1913):
Christmas among the members of the Greek Orthodox Church is purely a religious festival. Unlike the Yuletide celebrations of the other Christian churches, it contains no elements of feasting or gift giving. The Greek New Year, which is to be celebrated on Jan. 13, is in commemoration of the circumcision of the Child Christ and is the day of feasting and giving of gifts among the members of the faith. Places of business are closed and every child of the Greeks, rich or poor, great or obscure, is remembered with presents.
The giving is observed in a peculiar form. Santa Claus is not known by name, but the children are told that the “ghost” has come down the chimney and brought the candies, sweets and presents that make them happy. Every child is remembered without any exception, and the parents cloak their giving unselfishly, letting the child believe that the gifts came direct from God, as the ghost who brings them is supposed to be the Holy Spirit.
I’m curious; do any of our readers know about this tradition — both the giving of gifts on New Year’s Day and the Holy Spirit coming down the chimney?