What Do You Do About Western Christmas?
by Matushka Ann Lardas
Every year around December, Orthodox children are again torn
between the delights of this world and the desire to please God.
All around us are Christmas parties, at work, at school, in the
neighborhood. While in the West, people used to observe Advent as
a holy season like Lent, the most recent trend is to celebrate as
much as possible before hand, with December 25th serving as the
cut-off date, after which the tree is stripped and discarded, and
the lights are unstrung. Our Lord's birth, when we celebrate it,
goes almost as unnoticed as it did the first time.
It's hard, both for parents and for children, when the world
around us is celebrating while we are fasting and preparing for
the birth of our Lord. We don't want the children to feel left
out of the festivities, because it's hard to be the odd man out.
At the same time, we don't want to betray the faith. What do you
say when the kids want to open their presents before school
starts again? How do you handle non-Orthodox relatives? Do you
let them sing carols? How do you handle western Christmas?
Well, you handle it as you handle everything else your kids
encounter. You look at it together, first, and point out what's
good and what's bad. And there's much that is good. During this
time of year, newspapers focus their attention on the poor, and
people, in the midst of so much getting, think to give more to
others. On the day itself, many notice a kind of hush, as people
think about the miracle of Christ's birth and pray to him with
fervor. We should neither dismiss nor scorn these things. There
are beautiful lights and manger scenes to admire, and people
openly glorifying God in song at the malls and on street corners.
We should point out what is beautiful and nurture in our children
a love of everything goodthe solemnity and the joy.
And then, too, there's much to point out to them with sorrow
rather than scorn. There's the corruption of St. Nicholas from a
saint to Santa to some bearded guy on a surfboard, hawking
everything from whiskey to shaving cream. There's the
commercialization, and the emphasis on getting and giving rather
than on God. And there's that horrible emptiness that comes on
December 26th, which you can contrast with the fast free week
after our Lord's nativity.
But even while you're doing that, the kids will want in on all
the fun. And so you have to stick to your guns. Go down to the
school in late November, and explain to your kids' teachers when
we celebrate, and how, and why. Sometimes it helps if, after the
Nativity, you bring treats to the class, Greek or Russian cookies
laden with everything we can't have during the fast. The schools
discourage talking about religion, but love ethnic presentations,
and if you come from an Orthodox background, this is your
cultural heritage. My kids' teachers have lumped us in with
Channukah and the Hindus in the explanation that "some
people don't celebrate Christmas like we do." It isn't
perfect, but if it comes from the teacher, their classmates can
accept differences better.
And then every time the kids ask you a "But why can't
I?" question, you answer it the same as always,
"Because that's not what we do," "Because it isn't
Christmas yet," and the ever popular, "Because I'm your
mother and I said so." But it isn't enough, neither for the
children nor for us, to focus entirely on what we aren't doing.
That just makes us hanker after it more. We have to actively
prepare for the feast of our Lord's birth.
That means extra prayers, it means sacrificing (some families
give up television during the fast), it means special fasting
foods (and everyone has favorites). It means learning the
Troparion and Kontakion, and if you have a decent sized Sunday
School, preparing for the Yolka, or Christmas party, usually held
the first Sunday after the Nativity.
Also, especially during vacation, put your kids to work, not
just with the cleaning of the house but also with the fun stuff.
Bake and freeze cookies. Let them make presents for their
relatives and godparents. Starting at about three, they can cover
juice cans with contact paper to make pencil holders, and as they
get older, they can sew up felt to make eyeglass cases, make
funny magnets for Grandma's refrigerator, decorate picture
frames. . .you get the idea. Almost all the ladies' magazines
have craft ideas for kids this time of year, with illustrations
and directions. The kids will remember the fun and sense of
accomplishment as raw materials become something they can give to
make another happy, and the recipients will be touched.
There remains the question of how to handle non-Orthodox
family. It's the biggest day of the year for them, and they want
you to come and see all the relatives. For too many converts,
being at home that day is like being an ex-smoker in a room full
of people lighting up. We get testy and preachy and do more harm
than good. We insist that they call us by our baptismal names,
and announce that it isn't really Christmas and we don't intend
to eat anything they cooked. It's bad enough that our families
think we've up and joined a cult without us behaving as if we
had. If you can handle it politely, though, it's kinder to go.
Eat first or bring something fasting with you, if food is a
problem. Russian Beet Potato Salad is nourishing, red and green,
and contains no mayonnaise ("good for the heart").
Hoummos dip with vegetables and quartered pita bread makes a nice
appetizer to bring. Most fasting cakes taste like sweetened
doorstops, but if you cover fasting chocolate cake with whipped
topping and put cherry pie filling in the center and between the
layers, it becomes Black Forest Cake (Mom's recipe), pretty
enough for Christmas but still fasting. Be creative. Christ says,
"But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thine head, and wash
thy face, that thou appearest not unto men to fast. . ."
(Matthew 6:17-18). So if you go, dress nicely, bring something,
and smile. You are there to love them.
If your non-Orthodox relatives give the kids gifts before the
Nativity, should you let them open them? It depends. We open
gifts from out of state non-Orthodox relatives on the eve of the
Nativity (we have to be out the door in the morning for church,
and it takes the edge off the kids' eagerness. Plus, I can write
down who gave us what to write thank you notes, whereas in the
morning, we're lucky to keep track of who's opening what). But if
someone brings a gift to the house or we're at their house and
the kids are given a gift for Western Christmas, I let them open
it in front of the giver.
Sometimes a relative will make your favorite food and expect
you to eat it then and there. I've had success with the question,
"Could you freeze me some?" You can also freeze most
non-fasting gifts of food. My quilt group had a cookie exchange
one year, and it was good to know, for the Yolka, that I had 144
frozen, decorated cookies waiting in the wings.
Once kids hit high school, it gets harder, because they have
social obligations of their own. Let them make something to
bring. Cornbean pie is spicy enough to be a party dish for teens,
or they can mix vegetarian refried beans with picante sauce as a
dip for tortilla chips. For that matter, take your teen shopping
and teach him or her about nutrition and cooking. In four years
or less, they'll be off at college, and need to know how to
choose or prepare a fasting meal. School vacation is a good
chance to cook together.
Also, some parishes hold youth conferences over Christmas
vacation. If you're within a six hour drive of one, I recommend
that you bring (not send) your kids over twelve to one. (On the
east coast, the St. Herman Youth Conference is held every year.)
They'll meet other Orthodox teens, you'll meet other Orthodox
parents, and you all learn something about the Church. You get to
spend time together coming and going, and you never know what may
come of it. It's how I met my husband!
The parish can also take some of the ache out of vacation. You
can have a Christmas Party play rehearsal with some kind of
fasting treat after, or simply schedule more mid-week services.
On December 12/25, we celebrate two great Saints, St. Spiridon
the Wonderworker and St. Herman of Alaska. Many priests serve the
Liturgy that day.
Also, if you work at a job that has a variable schedule (e.g.
nursing, in a grocery store, police and firefighters), you could
volunteer to work on western Christmas for a non-Orthodox
co-worker. It's an act of kindness that they will remember.
The main thing to keep in mind is that it isn't bad for our
kids to learn to deal with being in the world but not of it at an
early age. This time of year, the rest of the world is
celebrating something that we also hold dear, the birth of
Christ. But the time will come when the rest of the world is
celebrating something repugnant, some ugliness such as the
triumph of perversion over morality, license over freedom, the
state over the church. And then it will be essential for our
children to not participate, and to know why we hold ourselves
apart. God grant that such small sorrows as the cookies we didn't
eat or specials we didn't watch will prepare them to turn away
from the greater accommodations the world will some day ask us
all to make.
Frmom The Orthodox Family: A Journal of Orthodox Family Life, Issue 6.
Matushka Ann and her husband, Fr. George,
live in Webster Texas. Fr. George is the rector of St. Vladimir's
Orthodox Church in Houston. They have three children. Article
©1993 Ann McLellan Lardas.