The Christmas Fast
The Christmas Fast, in preparation for the feast of the Nativity on December 25, is one of the minor fasts of the Church. This fast of forty days was introduced in the 12th century. Counting back 40 days from the feast of the Nativity, the fast begins on the evening of November 14 - the feast of the holy apostle Phillip. As a result, it is traditionally called Phillip's Fast or the Phillipian Fast (in Slavonic, Filipovka).
This fast is not penitential, but is rather a fast of preparation, like the pre-Communion fast. By abstaining from certain foods, we are opening up a "space" in our lives through asceticism and obedience, into which God may enter.
Traditional rules of fasting
Customs vary, but in general the traditional Christmas fast calls for the faithful to observe strict abstinence (no meat, fish, dairy or other animal product, wine or oil) on Mondays, Wednesday and Fridays, and a lesser abstinence (no meat, fish, dairy or animal products) on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Fish is allowed on Saturdays and Sundays, but no other animal products.
Several popular feasts fall during the first three weeks of the Christmas Fast: the Entry of the Theotokos into the Temple on November 21, the feast of Saint Nicholas on December 6, and the Maternity of Holy Anna (Conception of the Theotokos) on December 8 or 9. As a result, in many places the Christmas Fast either does not begin until December 10, or becomes stricter at that point.
In the Byzantine Catholic Church, this fast may be observed voluntarily, partially or in its entirety.
The final day of fasting before the feast of the Nativity is particularly strict. On this day - either December 24, or the preceding Friday if December 24 falls on a Saturday or Sunday - the Royal Hours are celebrated, and the faithful are encouraged to fast if possible until after Vespers, which may be combined with the Divine Liturgy. After this service, it is traditional in many places to hold a meal called the Holy Supper, which is meatless but festive.
Liturgical preparation for the Nativity
As the fast begins, there is no daily liturgical preparation for the feast of the Nativity. Instead, pre-festive prayers and hymns are added during the course of the fast.
The first announcement of the Nativity
Beginning on November 21 (the feast of the Entry of the Mother of God into the Temple), the Canon of the Nativity is sung at Matins as katavasia (that is, the irmosy or theme song of the Nativity is sung at the end of each ode of the canon). This is the first liturgical announcement of the Nativity: "Christ is born! Glorify Him!"
On the feast of the holy apostle Andrew (November 30), at Vespers, we hear the first pre-festive hymns:
Isaiah, dance for joy: receive the word of God! Prophesy to the Virgin Mary that the bush burning with fire shall not be consumed by the radiance of our God. Let Bethlehem be prepared! Let the gates of Eden be opened! Let the Magi come forth to see, wrapped in swaddling clothes, in a manger of beasts, the salvation which the star has pointed out from above the cave: the life-giving Lord, who saves us all!
These hymns become more urgent when we come to the feast of the holy archbishop Nicholas the Wonder-worker (December 6):
O cave, prepare yourself to receive the Mother who bears Christ within her womb. O manger, receive the Word who destroyed the sins of all. O shepherds, keep watch and then bear witness to the awesome wonder. O magi, from Persia now come, and bring your gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the King. For the Lord has appeared from a Virgin Mother; yet she bowed to him as a servant and spoke to him in her bosom, saying: "How were you conceived in me? How did you grow in me, my God and Savior?
The Prophets of the Old Testament
During the month of December, we commemorate several of the Old Testament prophets: Nahum (December 1), Habbakuk (December 2), Zephaniah (December 3), and Haggai (December 16). All of these prophets preached repentence, and the coming of the Messiah in great glory.
Daniel, whom we remember on December 17, was also a prophet: an apocalyptic seer who foretold an everlasting Kingdom of God. With him, we commemorate the three young men, Hananiah, Azariah, and Mishael, who were thrown into a fiery furnace on account of their faith in the one God of Israel, and were seen there walking about with a fourth man, "one like a son of God" (Daniel 3:92). The Fathers of the Church saw this fourth man as a prefigurement of Jesus himself, and the faith of Daniel and the three young men as a summation of the best of the saints of the Old Covenant. That is why hymns in honor of Daniel and the three youths are sung not only on their feast day (December 17), but on the two Sundays before Christmas as well.
The Sundays before Christmas
On the Second Sunday before the Nativity (December 11-17), the Sunday of the Forefathers, we recall the holy men and women who lived under the Old Covenant, and looked forward to the coming of the Messiah. At the same time, in the Gospel st the Divine Liturgy (Luke 14:16-24), we hear our Lord tell the parable of a feast to which those who were first invited, did not come - and how the master ordered the house to be filled with those who we not, at first invited." Thus in the troparion we sing:
By faith, O Christ, you justified the forefathers. Through them, you betrothed yourself to a Church from all nations.
On the Sunday before the Nativity (December 18-24), the Sunday of the Ancestors, the genealogy of Jesus is read at the Divine Liturgy (Matthew 1:1-25); the Epistle, from the Letter to the Hebrews, praises the saints of the Old Testament for their faith, but says that in spite of that faith, they did not receive the promised Messiah. Instead, "God had made a better plan - a plan which included us" (Hebrews 11-40).
The Pre-festive Days of the Nativity
Finally, on December 20, we begin the actual pre-festive days of Christmas:
Bethlehem, make ready, Eden has been opened for all. Ephrathah, prepare yourself, for the Tree of Life has blossomed from the Virgin in the cave. Her womb has become a spiritual paradise in which divinity was planted. If we partake of it, we shall live and not die like Adam. Christ is born to raise up the likeness that had fallen. (December 20)
On each day, we sing hymns of the journey of Mary and Joseph to the cave, as we await the celebration of the birth of the Son of God.
The Royal Hours of Christmas
One final day of strict fasting awaits us. Normally, this would be the Vigil (in Greek, Paramony) of the Nativity, December 24. But Saturday and Sunday are never days of strict fasting in the Byzantine Rite (with the single exception of Great and Holy Saturday). So when December 24 falls on one of these two days, the day of strict fast is anticipated on Friday.
On this day, a special service called the Royal Hours is celebrated. This service consists of the daytime services of the First Hour, Third Hour, Sixth Hour, Ninth Hour, and Typika, celebrated with special psalms and readings for the Nativity. (This service is called royal because, at one time, the Emperor himself always attended the service.) Each part of the service has an Old Testament prophecy, an Epistle reading, and a reading from the Holy Gospel.
The Vigil of the Nativity
Finally, we have come to the very eve of the Nativity - the Paramony or Vigil of Christmas (December 24). If it is a weekday, it is a day of strict fasting, with the Royal Hours celebrated during the day, and Vespers and the Divine Liturgy of Saint Basil in the evening.
If December 24 is a Saturday or Sunday, the Divine Liturgy may be celebrated in the morning, and we sing the troparion of the Vigil:
At that time, Mary registered in Bethlehem with the elder Joseph, who was of the house of David. She had conceived without seed and was with child; and her time to give birth had come. They found no room in the inn, but the cave became a pleasant palace for the Queen. Christ is born to raise up the likeness that had fallen.
The fast is not quite over; if there is a meal or Holy Supper in the evening of December 24, after Vespers, it is a meatless one. But we have arrived at the feast of the Nativity of our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ.
The Emmanuel Moleben
In many places, it has become traditional to celebrate a devotional service called a moleben during the pre-Christmas fast. This service is not one of the fixed daily offices, like Vespers or the Divine Liturgy, and so it can be celebrated at any time of the day, and on any day of the week.
This particular moleben uses the pre-festal hymns of the Nativity, and readings like those of the Royal Hours. Several different versions of this service are presently in use in the Byzantine Catholic Church. All of them emphasize the message of preparation for the Nativity - "Come, Lord Jesus!" - and the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies of the Messiah.
This service can be used occasionally or weekly throughout the Christmas Fast, to help the faithful prepare for the coming feast. The version prepared by the Metropolitan Cantor Institute provides seven sets of readings, to facilitate a weekly celebration. For more information. see Singing the Emmanuel Moleben.
- The Traditional Byzantine Celebration of the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord. Byzantine Leaflet Series, No. 5. (Pittsburgh: Byzantine Seminary Press, 1976).
- Father Thomas Hopko. The
(Crestwoord, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press,1984).
An excellent account of the Christmas Fast, and the feasts of the Nativity and Theophany.