Some inhabitants of Wrocław celebrate Christmas just 14 days after Catholic holidays – on January 7. The Eastern Churches include, for example Greek Catholics and Orthodox Christians. The difference in dates comes from the fact that the Eastern churches measure time with the Julian calendar, while the Catholic churches use the Gregorian calendar.
Christmas celebrations begin on Christmas Eve (January 6.) with a traditional Christmas Eve Supper (or Sviata Vecheria – Holy Supper). On this day, all family members gather at home and help each other with preparations for the evening’s supper. Similarly to the Polish Christmas Eve, on the table of Orthodox Christians you can find 12 different dishes. This number represents the 12 apostles and 12 months of the year.
Due to the fact that Christmas Eve falls under the 40-day fasting period before Christmas (called Advent), all the dishes of the Holy Supper are traditionally meatless. The main Christmas dish is ‘kutya’ – sweet wheat or barley grain mixed with poppy seeds, honey and sometimes also with dried fruits and nuts. A jug of ‘uzvar’ – a sweet mix of stewed dried fruits – is a must on the table.
The choice of dishes at the Holy Supper can vary in different regions and countries. Traditionally, dishes would consist of fish, mushrooms, potatoes or cabbage. Guests would sit down at the ceremonial table and when the first star appears in the evening sky, the dinner may begin.
Before the Christmas Eve supper, in place of a wafer (‘opłatek’ in Polish), Eastern Christian families break prosphora, a sort of a liturgical bread that is eaten with honey.
Festive liturgies are held on January 6 after the Holy Supper and on January 7 in the morning. From January 7 to 14, Eastern Christians traditionally greet each other with the words “Christ is born!” and respond “Let us praise Him!”
A popular Christmas custom is caroling (‘koliadky’). Most often, groups of children and teenagers visit from house to house with good wishes and carols, in exchange of little gifts such as sweets, fruit or money.
A unique custom is to meet carol singers walking with a nativity scene (‘vertep’ in Ukrainian, ‘shopka’ in Polish). Most commonly, vertep can be encountered in Western Ukraine. In the past, the vetrep was shown in the form of performances in a miniature puppet theatre placed in a small box. Such performance was divided into two parts. In the first one, the scenes related to the birth of Christ and biblical characters were played. The second part was secular and described stories of people’s lives. Nowadays, most often is meeting a living nativity scene, in which the roles of various characters are played by people. Carol singers dress up as King Herod, shepherds, the angel, the devil and even death.
Another Christmas custom which is very common in Ukraine, is bringing a ‘didukh’ – a sheaf of wheat, oats or rye, to a house. The didukh, who should stand in the house in a place of honour, symbolises the good spirit of the house, good harvest and prosperity.
As for Catholics, Christmas for Eastern Christians is above all a celebration of joy, peace and mercy. Despite the fact that Christmas is a family holiday, it is important in all cultures to support those who, for various reasons, cannot enjoy the holiday at this time.