Celebrating Christmas in the Eastern Catholic Churches
O Christ, our Defender, taking the form of man, You have bestowed upon him the joy of becoming Godlike (St. John Damascene)
Eastern-Rite Catholics (non Latin-Rite) have beautiful and ancient traditions for celebrating Christmas, which is commonly called the Feast of the Nativity of our Lord. The time before Christmas is known as the pre-Nativity period, and it is longer than our season of Advent. It has a few distinct practices
Fasting: Eastern Catholics prepare for the great Feast Day by a period of fasting -- much like Lent before Easter. This fast is called the Nativity Fast, or sometimes known as St. Philip’s Fast or the Philippian Fast, because it starts after the day of the Feast of St. Philip on November 14. The Fast lasts for 40 days until Nativity. In some Churches, like here in the United States, the Fast has been shortened to two weeks beginning December 10, following the feast of the Immaculate Conception (known as the Feast of the Conception of St. Anne in the Eastern Churches).
Royal Hours: This is a special service that hearkens back to the Emperor and the Byzantine Empire in Constantinople. The service is celebrated only three times a year, one of which is Christmas Eve. It highlights both Jesus' kenosis (self-emptying), and his royal majesty. Bells are tolled, icons are censed, and prayers are sung. There is not Divine Liturgy at that time, but later in the day, the Liturgy of Saint Basil is prayed, which is one of only ten times a year.
Holy Supper: Christmas Eve is a strict fast day; nevertheless, supper is an important event. Often, the table is decorated with white linens and hay, with a round loaf in the middle, the “Krachun”. Candles are lit and an empty seat is reserved for the “unexpected guest” for whom there should always be room, unlike the Inn for Mary and Joseph. Caroling traditionally follows before, as well as gift-exchanging. Christmas Eve is not an early night, as the faithful keep watch like the shepherds.
Christmas Tree: The Christmas Tree is often not displayed until Christmas Eve. The evergreen boughs are symbolic of the everlasting life Jesus offers to us. Decorations and ornamentation of the tree remind us that God blesses us and adorns each of us with gifts and talents.
Midnight Liturgy: Precisely at midnight, the church bells eagerly ring to announce Emmanuel “God with us”. The Christmas liturgy is rich in hymns and songs of thanksgiving and joy. It always closes with the words “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, good will toward men” (Lk. 2:14).
St. Gregory the Great’s Sermon On the Nativity captures the hope and joy of the Nativity of Our Lord in just a few simple lines:
“Christ is born, glorify him!
Christ came from heaven, welcome Him!
Christ is on earth, exult!
Sing to the Lord all the earth,
Joyfully praise HIm all you nations,
For He has become glorious