For Elaine Rakovan, the true meaning of Christmas begins this evening, when Orthodox Christians around the world celebrate the birth of Christ.
“It’s a lovely, lovely day,” she said, rich with tradition, where the focus is on the spiritual aspects, rather than the commercial and secular.
Some churches of the Orthodox faith, including Russian, Carpatho-Rusyn, Serbian and Ukrainian, adhere to the Julian calendar, rather than the Gregorian, and observe Christmas 13 days after Dec. 25 — on Jan. 7.
Rakovan, who lives in Economy and is a member of St. Vladimir Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Ambridge, said she will take off work Tuesday, and her sons will be absent from school as the family keeps alive generations-old traditions.
And tradition is very important, said the Rev. Robert Prepelka, pastor of St. John the Baptist Orthodox Church in Ambridge.
For the truly observant, preparation starts Nov. 28 with a 40-day Nativity fast where no meat or dairy products are to be consumed.
Prepelka understands that some, especially children, elderly and those who are ill, may not be able to commit to it, but religious leaders like the faithful to at least do so on Wednesdays and Fridays during that period.
Fasting, a cleansing of body and soul, he said, prepares one for Christ’s coming, and it’s also a means of reparation of sin.
But especially on Christmas Eve, no meat or dairy are to be eaten, Prepelka said, as the faithful prepare for the Holy Supper, a very special meal that has symbolic meaning.
“Traditionally, 12 different dishes are served in honor of the 12 Apostles,” he said.
“The meal starts when you see the first star in the sky,” that represents the Star of Bethlehem.
The purpose, he said, was to eat early to enable families to get to church services on time.
In many of the agrarian villages, animals would be fed first.
“They were the first eyewitnesses,” Prepelka said, to the birth of Christ.
“When we had cats or dogs, we always made sure they were fed before we sat down to eat,” he recalled, growing up in his parents’ home.
In the home, a plain, white cloth would cover the dinner table. Straw would be strewn beneath and atop, “representative of the humble beginning of our savior in Bethlehem among the animals,” said Prepelka.
The father of the family opens the meal with prayer and a tropar, a religious hymn, usually with a verse that begins: “Thy Nativity, O, Christ our God, has shown forth the light of knowledge to the world.”
A toast is given and then everyone receives a piece of krachun, a simple bread baked with garlic cloves, that would be dipped in honey.
“It represents the sweet and bitter things of life,” Prepelka said.
A fasting soup, likely sauerkraut and mushroom — or lima bean, split pea or lentil — is served.
Pirogi and bobal’ki, a Christmas Eve treat, are included. Bobal’ki, Prepelka explained, are puffy balls of dough that are baked and served with poppy seeds or crushed walnuts and honey or a savory version with sauteed cabbage and onion.
Fish, possibly baked salmon, peas or beans, oven-baked or mashed potatoes with onions, and steamed fruits, such as apricots and prunes, would also comprise the meal.
Families then would attend church, highlighted by the Great Compline with the proclamation from Isaiah, “God is with us,” that is sung many times before and after the service, Prepelka said.
On Christmas Day, Divine Liturgy is celebrated followed by a feast with everything from turkey and ham to roast beef and stuffed cabbage.
Rich customs abound in the Serbian Orthodox faith, too, especially burning a Yule log on Christmas Eve, said the Rev. Milan Krstic, pastor of St. George Serbian Orthodox Church in Midland.
An oaken log, chosen for its hardness, represents the strength of faith. The festive ceremony reminds the faithful of the fire shepherds built in a cave to warm themselves and the baby Jesus, Krstic said.
“They took wood to put on the fire and that wood was supposed to be the Yule log,” he said. “We always take the Yule log and burn it in front of the church.”
Afterward, church members can take pieces for their fireplaces to await the polozajnik — the first guest to visit Christmas Day after Divine Liturgy. Usually, it’s a child or goodhearted person, Krstic said, who stokes the fire, offering prayers and blessings for the family.
Following services Christmas Eve, worshipers parade through the streets of Midland wishing everyone a Merry Christmas.
Krstic estimated as many as 100 cars, accompanied by a police escort, wend their way through town en route to the Serbian Club. Some cars have speakers attached to play carols.
“People of different nationalities and faith all come out from their homes and wave and wish each other Merry Christmas,” he said of the tradition he estimates to be 60 years old. “They expect us to go.”
Christmas Day, Serbians typically dine on roast pig, Krstic said.
“It can’t be Christmas without roast pig,” he said, something everyone looks forward to after the 40-day fast from meat and dairy products.
Abiding the fast is difficult, he said, “but it is the least we can do for our faith and our Christ.”
Cesnica, a flat, round, grain bread, often including pecans, is prepared with a silver coin inside.
The bread is broken and the person who receives a piece with the coin is supposed be blessed with riches in the new year.
Being able to celebrate her faith openly and honor her Ukrainian heritage is especially meaningful to Emilie Klavin, Rakovan’s 82-year-old mother who came to the United States with her parents as a 21-year-old.
Growing up in the Ukraine, then under Russian rule, Christianity wasn’t accepted, Rakovan said, and was practiced in secret.
This holiday, they will set their table with embroidered Ukrainian linens and wheat, symbolizing Christ, the bread of life, and eat the special foods. And there are always place settings for loved ones who have passed, she said.
The adults will proclaim “Christ is Born” and her 20- and 14-year-old sons will respond, “Let us glorify him.”
Everyone attends church on Christmas Day, which Rakovan described as “a wonderful celebration.” The chants, prayers and special hymns that echo through the sanctuary give her tingles, she said.
Rakovan said her goal is for her children to embrace and continue the customs and traditions so important to their Ukrainian heritage and to focus on the true meaning of Christmas — no matter what calendar you follow.
“It’s not about the gifts received,” she said, “but the gifts given.”