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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 good—the 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.