Cupolas, Christmas and Caviar

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.

A Russian Christmas card: “C Рождеством Христовым” means Merry Christmas

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!

Caviar tops the Christmas food shopping list

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.

A Christmas gift from my mama

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.

Going up… and up…

...and up to 181st Street

…and up to 181st Street…

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.

When christened, my husband inherited my grandfather’s old cross

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.

Amidst townhouses…

Who: The Archbishop Justinian of Naro-Fominsk, who is also the administrator of Patriarchal Parishes in the USA.

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.

Midnight Mass – church interior

Chandelier and frescoes

CHRISTMAS DAY, Morning Mass, on January 7th, 2012

Where: Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic Cathedral of the Transfiguration of our Lord – located on North 12th Street in Williamsburg, Brooklyn

Russian Orthodox Church, Williamsburg

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.

Morning Mass

Sunlit beauty

CHRISTMAS DAY,  Evening Mass, on January 7th, 2012

Where: Synod of Bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR) – located on 93rd Street and Park Avenue in Manhattan

Synod of Bishops Church

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.

We have a particular affinity for this church because this is where my husband was christened in February, last year.

The Christmas Day service was more intimate than those of the other two churches, but it was just as heartfelt and meaningful.

NB: I was allowed to take photographs in all cathedrals.


56 thoughts on “Cupolas, Christmas and Caviar

      • He told me it used to be a bad (even unsafe) neighborhood; gentrification I guess. I like it better than his old place in Upper East Side Manhattan. I can actually drive and find parking, and Manhattan is only few stops away on the subway. Lots of nice restaurants in the neighborhood too!

      • Yes, we live a few minutes away and as I understand it, Williamsburg has come along way from it’s “artist enclave” days of the 1970s. I posted about Bushwick also, if you wanted to take a read of that post. that’s located close by and is up and coming, like Williamsburg was in its earlier days. The other two churches in this post are located on the Upper East Side – I took a subway all the way. So much easier!! Very cool that you’re familiar with the area 🙂

  1. Христос се роди! Sorry, I know this is not Russian but I suspect it must be very similar 🙂
    Very nice photos. I particularly like the ones from the church in Williamsburg as I had never seen it before. Unfortunately my plans for an Orthodox Christmas dinner at my place did not work out but I might celebrate the new year next week!

    • Thank you – and C Рождеством Христовым! Thanks for your comment about the photos – I so enjoyed taking them in the Williamsburg church as there was so much beauty within. It helps when the church isn’t surrounded by other homes and actually has windows (unlike the other two, that had none or very few). Looking forward to what you may be planning for New Year! Two celebrations for the one year – isn’t that cool!

    • There’s something about the combination of that boiled egg (cut in half) and topped with caviar. It is just a perfect couple of bites 🙂 I am sure you would like it! Thank you!

  2. С Рождеством Marina 😀 I enjoyed reading your post, and those Russian Christmas card! When I was a kid (still in Soviet Union), we mostly had Russian Happy New Year cards, but not many ‘Merry Christmas’ ones 🙂 Orthodox churches are very beautiful,I love the architecture, especially the those golden cupolas. Riga had a lovely an impressive Orthodox church 🙂

    • C Рождеством Христовым Kristina! I would love to visit Riga! When I was in Russia, I felt that there were more golden looking domes though in the US, the churches seem to favour copper tones. One of the most vivid memories I have of Russia is walking in the countryside and seeing the ‘onion domes’ far off in the distance. Such a beautiful scene! New Year in one week! Thanks for your comment 🙂

  3. I love that Russian store on 181st ST, used to go there all the time when I lived in NYC. The problem for me was that even though I grew up in Russia, I grew up Protestant, so Christmas has always been Dec 25 for me. This year, my husband and I went for a walk, and somewhere half way around the Lake of the Isles, I remembered – oh it’s Russian Christmas. I was also hoping to see pictures of the Orthodox church from the UWS, on W 82 nd st 🙂

    • Hi! Isn’t that store cute? I bought a few other things – mulberries in syrup from Armenia and lingonberry jam from Austria. They have an array of packaged and fresh goods, and I should have mentioned a little more about it in my post 🙂 I just googled the church on 82nd street – it is a Ukranian church? I have never been there so I wonder if this is the one you mean. Let me know!

      • Yes, it’s a Ukranian orthodox church, which I figured was the same as Russian (beliefs system and order of worship), I was never raised orthodox so I never went inside, but it was always fun to see Easter and Christmas banners in Ukranian on the front!

      • I’m going to have to have a look at the church now! Maybe they will keep the festivities up for Orthodox New Year – 14th January. I’ll try and check it out and let you know!

    • Thank you so much Karen! Your comment is lovely! I had so much fun taking those escalator shots. They are at 181st street station and really symbolise the ‘uptown’ hike to me 😉

    • Yes, it was fun thinking back to Christmas in Sydney 🙂 My mum got a little saddened by it though, so hopefully we’ll be back home soon to make new Christmas memories!! Thank you 🙂

    • Thank you! They are beautiful – the workmanship and the feeling within them. My favourite spaces are La Sagrada Familia for its stained glass and towers; and St Isaacs Cathedral in Russia, for the mosaics. Stunning architecture. Do you have any favourites? Thank you for your comment 🙂

  4. Marina it’s so interesting to see some of your traditions shared here. The churches are so beautiful and your photography really captures such ethereal moments of worship and community.
    “sunlit beauty” – wow! The rays of light coming in the high windows is glorious. Thanks for sharing this part of your life. 🙂

    • Thanks so much for reading the post, Karen. I wanted to share this as I think it’s a side of Christmas that others may not know about, or see. The church in Brooklyn was the only one to have windows all around, and it was such a lovely sunny day too; seeing the rays was an extra special part of the service. I am glad you enjoyed it 🙂

  5. Marina, so happy you found time to share these special traditions. I’ve always found Eastern Orthodox churches to be so beautiful, during my travels. It’s interesting to learn more about how the Eastern Orthodox Christmas is celebrated.

    Your photographs of the churches’ architectural detail are also wonderful! I really like the one with the candles all aglow.

    • Thanks Tricia! I am glad to be able to share this; to showcase the churches through tradition. Thanks for commenting on the photos – it was tough taking them under the circumstances at times!

  6. Beautiful traditions and absolutely gorgeous photos of the churches! I grew up Roman Catholic and always find peace within a Catholic church. When our children were little, we had a long Christmas celebration too. We started with St. Nicholas Day on December 6th, had a fun St. Lucia Day on December 13th, then celebrated the birth of Baby Jesus on the 25th, followed by the Epiphany on January 6th. It is hard to take down the tree! This year my goal is to get some sort of inside lights to brighten our home during the dark months.

    • Thank you so much! I am so glad you liked the photos. Your tradition sounds wonderful – do you still keep up with it from year to year, or is it harder without the kiddies? Re: your comment about the lights – for me, it’s going to be hard to see NYC take down the lights around the city as they gave the city such a good feeling. I really love their festive quality. Fairy lights indoors always make me happy and the plain ones have such a great effect – around a plant or even a curtain rod! Thanks for your comment 🙂

  7. Merry Christmas Marina!I love your Xmas album. I also celebrated the occasion with my russian neighbors/friends. We had Russian salad and Georgian wine I had found in Coney Island earlier last year! 😉
    My dream trip is to go to St Petersbourg one day…I can wait to take pictures there!

    • Hello, and thank you! Merry Xmas to you too! That’s great that you celebrated with your friends and family. So cool! St Petersburg is beautiful and I also cannot wait to go back… Whenever that will be, I know I will have a keener eye for detail 🙂 Keep me posted on your travel plans and it’s great to hear your comment!

  8. I don’t know why you’re concerned about you photography – the photographs here are absolutely beautiful! Those churches look amazing, I’m so glad you were able to take pictures during the services!

    • Now that you say that, I don’t know why I am concerned either 🙂 Thanks so much for the vote of confidence! I guess it’s a beginner thing. The services were beautiful and I am glad you got to see them from this part of the world.

  9. Lovely to hear about your traditions. So important to hold on to. Especially in our fractured world. Makes me want to dig into my family traditions too. Love the blog., great photos. Tom

    • Thanks Tom – you’re so right, it is something to hold onto. Especially with my family in Australia; when the world seems smaller, yet fractured – as you say. Thank you for your compliment, it’s really appreciated 🙂

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