The Birth of Christ (Christmas)
The Nativity according to the flesh of our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ
, also called Christmas, is one of the Great Feasts of the Orthodox Church. Christians believe that the Lord Jesus Christ was born to the Holy Theotokos and Virgin Mary, and entered into the world as a man and revealed Himself (God) to mankind.
Christmas is a holiday that is celebrated annually, celebrated by billions of people around the world. It is one of the most important feasts of the liturgical calendar, a civil holiday in many nations, is celebrated by many non-Christians and an integral part of the holiday season.
According to the Holy Bible and Holy Tradition, Jesus was born in the city of Bethlehem in a cave, surrounded by shepherds and farm animals. Baby Jesus was born in a manger from the Virgin Mary, assisted by her husband St. Joseph. Both Joseph and the Theotokos were forced to travel
due to a Roman census, and so the unusual location of the birth was because of the refusal of a nearby inn to accommodate the expecting couple (Luke 2:1-20). Dwellings were built above caves that housed livestock in order to make use of the heat.
Although three magi from the East are commonly depicted as visiting during the birth itself (twelve days after according to Roman Catholicism), the Bible depicts the coming of an unspecified number of wise men as being a few years after Jesus' birth (Matthew 2). These magi came bearing gifts
of gold, frankincense, and myrrh (Matt 2:11). In metaphorical terms, these gifts came to symbolize Christ's royalty, divinity, and suffering.
The original date of the celebration in Eastern Christianity is January 6 in connection with the Epiphany. In modern times, there is a difference of thirteen days between the present day Gregorian calendar and the older Julian calendar. Ethiopia, Russia, Ukraine, Serbia, Georgia, the Republic of Macedonia, Montenegro, the Republic of Moldova, and the Greek Patriarchate of Jerusalem celebrate Christmas on January 7.
To celebrate the holiday, the cycle starts with a fast that last 40 days prior to the Nativity Feast. It is also referred to as Advent. It is a time to purify the soul and body prior to the spiritual reality of the coming of Christ, similar to the fasting before the Resurrection. Five days after the beginning of the fast on the eve of the Feast of the Presentation of the Theotokos, we hear the first announcement from the nine Irmoi of the Christmas Canon: "Christ is born, glorify him!" In this period of time there are other special preparatory days announcing the approaching Nativity: St Andrew's Day, St Nicholas Day, the Sunday of the Forefathers, and the Sunday of the Fathers. 5 days prior to Christmas begins the Fore feast of the Nativity. The liturgical structure is similar to the Holy Week preceding Pascha. The Orthodox Church sees the birth of the Son of God as the beginning of the saving ministry, which will lead Him, for the sake of man's salvation, to the ultimate sacrifice of the Cross.
On the eve of the Nativity the Royal Hours are read and the Divine Liturgy of St. Basil the Great is served with Vespers. During these services the Old Testament
Prophecies of Christ's birth are chanted. There is also a tradition of Vale or Holy Supper, which is a 12 course Lenten dinner served before the family goes to Vespers. The Vigil of Christmas begins with Great Compline, where there is singing of the Troparion and Kontakion of the feast with special hymns glorifying the Savior's birth. There are also special long litanies of intercession and the solemn blessing of the five loaves of bread together with the wheat, wine, and oil. Christians partake in the bread soaked in wine and are also anointed with the oil, called the litya, or breaking of bread. The order of Matins is that of a great feast. Here for the first time the full Canon "Christ is born" is sung while the faithful venerate the Nativity Icon.
On the second day of the feast there begins a two-day celebration of the Synaxis of the Theotokos. The church points to Mary as the one through whom the Incarnation was made possible by combining the hymns of the nativity with those celebrating the Mother of God
. Also remembered on these days is St. Stephen who was the first Martyr. On the Sunday after Christmas James the Brother of Our Lord
, King David, and Joseph the Betrothed are commemorated.
The festal period extends to Theophany during which Christmas songs are sung and the Church does not call for fasting and kneeling in prayer at this time. During this festal period, it is the custom of some Orthodox Christians to greet each other with "Christ is born!" and they respond with "Glorify Him!" The Birth of Christ (Christmas) is observed on 25th December/7th January.