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World: Orthodox And Uniate Christians Mark Christmas

Christmas in Lviv, Ukraine (RFE/RL) On 7 January, 13 days after Christmas is celebrated in many parts of the world, Christmas will be marked by Eastern Rite and many Orthodox Christians who follow the Julian calendar. From the sighting of the first star, the Christmas supper, and the blessing of the water, RFE/RL looks at the traditions -- some Christian, some pagan -- that make this festival so special for so many.

Prague, 6 January 2006 (RFE/RL) --"Sleep Lord Jesus, sleep," Aleksei Dozenko sings, picking up the melody of a Christmas carol that had floated in the consciousness of Orthodox Russia long before the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 drove the church underground.

The seven-and-a-half-year-old Dozenko is one of a new generation of children being brought up again in the time-honored traditions of the Eastern Orthodox Church.

After 70 years in the wilderness, the rhythms and festivals of the Eastern Rite and Orthodox churches are reclaiming their place at the heart of the culture and life of Russia, Ukraine, and elsewhere.

Today, most Eastern Rite and some Orthodox churches use the Gregorian Calendar to celebrate fixed feasts like Christmas, using the Julian Calendar only for Easter and moveable feasts.

But the Russian Orthodox Church -- whose followers are spread all over Central and Eastern Europe and beyond -- together with the Eastern Rite Church and the Orthodox communities of Jerusalem, Mount Athos, Georgia, and Serbia, continue to celebrate Christmas old style -- on 7 January.


In the Eastern tradition, Christmas is preceded by a 40-day fast, beginning on 15 November -- and only ended on the evening of Christmas Eve with the appearance of the first star.

Traditionally, in the meal that follows, no meat is served -- while the centerpiece of the occasion is Kutya, a sort of porridge made of grains to symbolize hope, honey for happiness and poppy seeds for peace.

Curiously, one of the most traditional Russian Orthodox communities is in Alaska in the United States, where the descendants of the Russians who settled there over 200 years ago still observe Christmas on 7 January. They have maintained the custom of "starring," which has its origins in Ukraine. Groups of villagers go from house to house bearing a decorated star and singing "kolyadki," or Christmas carols.

Grandfather Frost

In Russia, however, Christmas, whether of the Gregorian or the Julian variety, plays a secondary role in the popular imagination to the celebration of New Year.

And Father Christmas, Santa Claus or Saint Nicholas have yet to make a comeback against Ded Moroz, or Grandfather Frost, and Snegurochka, the beguiling snow queen who hands out his gifts.

The dazzling duo who now dominate the Russian festive season ousted Santa Claus when the Bolsheviks began their clampdown on religion. Yet while Ded Moroz is undoubtedly drawn from Russia's pagan past, he looks very much like his Western counterpart -- except that he wears a blue suit and keeps an ice maiden in constant tow.

Ded Moroz has also entered into an alliance with the traffic police in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk in a vain endeavor to persuade the local citizenry to stay sober when they take their cars on the roads. Traffic cops dressed in the full Ded Moroz outfit, right down to the flowing white beards, have been stopping drivers and issuing gentle warnings.

For most Russians, though, the real cause for celebration is not Christmas itself but the fact that official recognition of the Orthodox Christmas extends the holiday break to 10 days – which, for many, means 10 days of heavy drinking. Last year, Moscow's ambulance service received 7500 calls every day during the January break, most of them alcohol related.

But the old ways may be coming back. Many young Russians are returning to the church and traditions that just a decade ago most had thought long dead are undergoing a revival. Christmas celebrates the birth of Christ -- but in Russia and much of Eastern Europe people may also be celebrating the rebirth of a faith.

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