December 26, 2017
The Best of Both Worlds
By Serge Mihaly
Every year when December 25 rolls around, the country is enthralled in one of the most joyous holidays of the year. Christmas brings visions of ‘sugar plums’, Santa and last minute shopping sprees. To a large part of the Christian world it is a time to celebrate the coming of our Lord and savior Jesus Christ. Midnight masses are attended and songs are sung in honor and love to welcome the newborn baby. This is not exclusive to Western Christendom as many Eastern Orthodox churches celebrate at the same time bringing together the two Churches. While there are many Eastern Orthodox Churches that celebrate Christmas on December 25th, our church goes by what is called the Julian calendar or old calendar. With it our Christmas arrives later, January 7th.
Simultaneously, ‘American Christmas’, as my family refers to December 25th, sees countless stores suddenly become crowded, eye catching holiday ads, television shows of Santa and his elves, Frosty the Snowman and Charlie Brown. We become obsessed with buying toys, cars, sparkling engagement rings, new computers and more. Many will take a trip to New York City to brave the crowds and see the Rockefeller center Christmas tree or the Christmas show at Radio City Music hall. The season is warm and busy, filled with good memories and holiday fun. All of this combines to create a wholesome sense of love and cheer. It is indeed a special time of the year.
I have to admit it, I love Christmas and have many beautiful memories of family and fun. It is a fundamental part of my life, a time that has warmly marked my life. Yet, through all the joy, laughter and fun there is something missing. For me, the real reason for Christmas, Christ’s birth, is often, too often crowded out by gift giving, ‘Santa Claus and a non-stop shopping frenzy.
As Orthodox Christians on Broadbridge Avenue we also experience American Christmas, too. Santa visits our children and we become infused with the holiday spirit. We too enjoy snowy nights before warm fires, hanging decorations on our Christmas trees, family get-togethers, Bing Crosby’s ‘White Christmas’ or Frank Capra’s ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’, eggnog and mistletoe. December 25th is a beautiful time of the year for us too, but, for me, it has always been the first of a beautiful ‘one-two punch’ of the holiday, a precursor to a much more significant day yet to come.
Our Christmas, ‘Russian Christmas’, as my family calls it, comes several weeks later. It is on this day, January 7, where we joyfully celebrate and ‘magnify’ the birth of our Lord and King, Jesus Christ. We are not sidetracked with rushed shopping sprees or Christmas Eves devoted to wrapping presents or a visit by a gift-laden chubby elf and his 8 tiny reindeer. No, we gather together in Church separate from the secular aspects of the season to sing and worship the ‘reason for the season’, the birth of Jesus Christ.
On ‘Russian Christmas’ we are singularly devoted to God, to the birth of Jesus, to the love of Mary and Joseph, to our traditions born through the sacrifices of our forefathers and mothers and their struggles to bring their Orthodox faith to America to grow and prosper. We sing beautiful liturgical songs with passion and love signaling the triumph of Christ’s coming and all it foreshadows. We go to confession and communion, we hear the voices of our beautiful choir, the smell of incense as it rises high in the church, see a passionate Saint named Nicholas on the iconostas who as an early Bishop in our Church defended Christ’s humanity and deism, and of course, greet each other with ‘Christos Radietza’ answering with the refrain ‘Slavi Teyeho.’
Our Christmas, held according to the Julian or Old calendar, is very beautiful to me, much more beautiful than ‘American Christmas’ because there is no confusion, no competing idea. Our Christmas is special because without dilution or distraction it is devoted to the birth of Christ. And while other churches celebrate it just as piously on December 25th, for me it’s not the same. January 7th is solely focused on God’s gift, His infant son and thus His promise of our salvation if we choose to follow Him. This gift cannot be found in any television ad nor is it located in a shopping mall or under a Christmas tree. This gift is from God’s all loving and generous heart.
I have always considered myself both blessed and lucky to be an Orthodox Christian. The people, the priests, the rich heritage and traditions and the beautiful familial love we share are all unique and so valuable. I have been blessed to celebrate both Christmases, one on December 25th and then on January 7th where we specifically celebrate God’s great love for us in the birth of the baby Jesus. Both provide warm and beautiful feelings in me, different, but beautiful just the same.