Growing up in Sydney, I would celebrate Russian Orthodox Christmas on the January 7th with my family. Although I love Christmas on the 25th, festivities on the 7th felt more relaxed and spiritual.
On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, my family gets together at church and at home to exchange gifts (small ones, since December 25th is the main gift giving time) and indulge in a buffet of delectable Russian dishes such as caviar, boiled eggs, herring, dill potatoes, borscht, potato salad, smoked trout, rye bread, wine… and vodka… Mind you, this is all consumed at the height of summer in Australia!
A prolonged festive season means the Christmas tree stands in the living room for about three weeks (maybe longer), since Orthodox New Year is celebrated on January 14th. I remember that it was always difficult to set time aside to take down the tree as it meant a couple of hours’ worth of tissue papering and packing up the myriad decorations that adorned it. “Time that could be better spent watching ‘Home and Away’ or ‘Neighbours’ (or some other Aussie drama series),” I always thought… and I am sure my sister did too.
Living in the US, I have tried my best to carry out the table traditions that I was brought up with. I lay out a mini-feast, but the table is no where near as elaborate as the one my mum assiduously, and gracefully, prepares. I make a trip to either ‘Moscow on the Hudson’ – a Russian food store up on 181st Street in Manhattan, or Brighton Beach (in Brooklyn) to ensure that my dinner table features some personal favorites: black caviar, rye bread, trout, herring, and champagne.
This year, I took the celebrations a step further. In addition to my pilgrimage to 181st street for foodstuffs, my husband (who was recently christened) and I attended a few Russian church services. It was a new experience for us to share together and a wonderful way to see in the day.
Three Russian Orthodox churches are located by us in New York: two in uptown Manhattan and one near our home, in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. In addition to attending midnight mass on Christmas Eve, we welcomed Christmas Day with a morning mass, and book-ended it with an evening mass. Each service was at a different church; it was beautiful to be a part of the festivities, to listen the churches’ choirs and to admire their elaborate icons and frescoes.
Here’s a mini-tour of our Russian Christmas. Enjoy!
CHRISTMAS EVE, Midnight Mass, on January 6th through 7th, 2012
Where: St Nicholas Cathedral – located on 97th Street between Madison and Fifth Avenues in Manhattan.
What: This church is representative of the Moscow Patriarchate in the USA and is located in a building about twice as wide as the townhouses surrounding it. It is an old building and the church has a history dating back to 1870, when it was founded in a private home on Second Avenue. It relocated to larger grounds to accommodate an increasing number of followers. The first service was held in the existing cathedral, which stands out on this residential street, in 1902.
This is a very popular church and there was a line to get in for Midnight Mass.
Where: Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic Cathedral of the Transfiguration of our Lord – located on North 12th Street in Williamsburg, Brooklyn
Who: V. Rev. Wiaczeslaw Krawczuk
What: The church was built between 1916 and 1921 and consecrated in 1922. Its Byzantine style features the characteristic cupolas topped with Patriarchal crosses.
This is a stunning church, from the inside and outside, with a beautiful choir. The cupolas and windows were renovated in 2004.
Where: Synod of Bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR) – located on 93rd Street and Park Avenue in Manhattan
Who: Metropolitan Hilarion, who is the First Hierarch of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia Metropolitan of Eastern America and New York, as well as the Ruling Bishop of the Diocese of Australia and New Zealand. He represents the ROCOR at the Moscow Patriarchate when bishops convene there.
Incidentally, he is also my husband’s godfather.
What: The church is housed in a beautiful red-brick, Georgian-style building with courtyard. Unfortunately, it has no cupolas. In 1958, the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia became the owner of this 1917 building. The cathedral, a long and narrow sanctuary in the centre wing, is decorated with beautiful gold icons, and is the home to the ‘Kursk-Root Icon of the Mother of God, Protectress of the Russian Diaspora.’ Since 1957, the Icon had resided in this main cathedral, dedicated to it in name. The holy Icon regularly travels to all the dioceses of the Russian diaspora. Though it was in New York today, we couldn’t view it as the icon was in the care of a bishop, who absent from the service.
The Christmas Day service was more intimate than those of the other two churches, but it was just as heartfelt and meaningful.