Orthodox Christmas Celebrations Throughout the World

Venerable George the Scribe, of Khakhuli

My beloved spiritual children in Christ, Our Only True God and Our Only True Savior,


Orthodox Christmas Day in Russia

Christmas Day in Russia marks the birth of Jesus Christ in the Christian Orthodox Tradition. Although banned during the Soviet times, Christmas is now regaining its popularity and religious meaning in Russia.

Orthodox Christians in Russia celebrate Christmas Day with activities such as having a family dinner, attending the Christmas Divine Liturgy and visiting relatives and friends. There is a 40-day Fast preceding Christmas Day. The Nativity fasting period ends with the first star in the night sky on January 6th-a symbol of Jesus Christ's birth. Many Orthodox Christians go to the church to attend a Christmas Divine Liturgy that evening.

Orthodox Christmas is a national holiday in Russia so banks and public offices are closed on January 7th.

After the Russian Revolution of 1917, the Bolshevicks banned Christmas celebrations. Many Christmas traditions, such as decorating a fir tree and giving presents, turned into New Year's traditions. It began regaining popularity only recently, partially because Russian Orthodox leaders, starting with Vladimir Putin, annually attend the Christmas Divine Liturgy. The Russian Orthodox Church celebrates religious holy days according to the Julian calendar.

Christmas in Ethiopia

The Ethiopian Orthodox Church still uses the old Julian calendar, so they celebrate Christmas Day on January 7th, not December 25th. The Christmas celebration in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church is called Ganna. Most people go to church on Christmas Day.

The Ethiopian Orthodox Christians follow a strict fast on Christmas Eve (January 6th). At dawn on the morning of Ganna, Orthodox Christians get dressed in white. Most people wear a traditional garment called a shamma. It's a thin white cotton piece with brightly colored stripes across the ends. It's worn like a toga. The early Christmas (Ganna) Divine Liturgy begins at 4:00 a.m.

The choir sings from the outer circle. Everyone who goes to church for the Ganna (Christmas) celebration is given a candle. The people walk around the church three times in a solemn procession, holding the candles. Then they go to the second circle to stand during the service. The men and boys are separated from the women and girls. The center circle is the most important and holy place in the church and is where the priest serves the Holy Communion or Divine Liturgy.

Traditional Christmas foods in Ethiopia include wat which is a thick and spicy stew that contains meat, vegetables and sometimes eggs. Wat is eaten on a 'plate or injera'-a flat bread Pieces of the injera are used as an edible spoon to scoop up the wat.

Ukrainian Orthodox Christmas

Rizdvo (Christmas) in the Ukraine is celebrated on January 7th. For the Ukrainian people Christmas is the most important family holy day of the whole year. It is celebrated solemnly, as well as merrily, according to ancient customs that have come down through the ages and are still observed today.

Ukrainian Christmas festivities begin on Christmas Eve, January 6th and end on the Feast of the Epiphany. The Christmas Eve Supper or Sviata Vecheria (Holy Supper) brings the family together to partake in special foods and begin the holiday with many customs and traditions, which reach back to antiquity. The rituals of the Christmas Eve are dedicated to God, to the welfare of the family, and to the remembrance of the ancestors.

With the appearance of the first star which is believed to be the Star of Bethlehem, the family gathers to begin. A kolach (Christmas bread) is place in the center of the table. This bread is braided into a ring, and three such rings are placed one on top of the other, with a candle in the center of the top one. The three rings symbolize the Holy Trinity and the circular form represents Eternity.

After all the preparations, have been completed, the father offers each member of the family a piece dipped in honey, which had been previously blessed in church. He then leads the family in prayer. After the prayer the father extends his best wishes to everyone with the greeting Khrystos Razhdaietsia (Chris is born), and the family sits down to a twelve-course meatless Christmas Eve Supper.

There are twelve courses in the Supper, because according to the Christian tradition each course is dedicated to one of Christ's Apostles.

While many of the Ukrainian Christmas Eve customs are of a solemn nature, the custom of caroling is joyful and merry. Ukrainian Christmas songs or carols have their origins in antiquity, as do many other traditions practiced at Christmas time. The themes of Ukrainian Christmas songs vary. Many, of course, deal with the birth of Christ and that occasion's joyful celebrations, and many of them have apocryphal elements.

Celebrating Christmas in Orthodox Georgia

The vast majority of the population in Georgia is Orthodox Christian. As such, Christmas is one of the most important holy days of the year in the Orthodox world, the Julian calendar is still used in place of the Gregorian calendar, meaning that Christmas falls on January 7th.

On this day, large processions make their way through cities, towns, and villages throughout Georgia. These mass walks, called Alilo, are central to Georgia's unique Christmas celebration. Banner-carrying clergy lead the processions, and men, women and children follow. Dressed as shepherds, soldiers, famous religious figures, or wearing traditional Georgian clothes, the procession members congratulate each other, and collect money for charities.

Songs play an important role in the Christmas tradition in Georgia as well. Harmonious Georgian carols echo through the streets during the procession, and can also be heard in churches throughout the day. Although the songs vary from region, Georgian Christmas carols are solemn and beautiful.

Christmas trees are an important part of Georgian Christmas, as well. Georgian Christmas trees, called Chichilaki, are carved from the branches of walnut trees. Hanging, curled strands of white wood give these small trees a distinctive, unmistakable appearance. It is easy to see why Chichilaki are often called "Basil's beard."

Christmas in Serbia and Montenegro

In Serbia and Montenegro, the main Church is the Orthodox Church and they still use the old "Julian" Calendar, which means that Christmas Eve is on 6th and Christmas Day on 7th January.

On the morning of Christmas Eve, the father of the family used to go to the forest to cut a young oak called the 'Badnjak' (Christmas Eve tree). But today people just buy one. Under the table there should be also some straw as a symbol of the stable/cave where Jesus was born.

At Christmas a special kind of bread is eaten. It's called 'cesnica' and each member of the family gets a piece (and the house does too). There is a coin hidden in it and whoever gets the coin will be blessed for the entire year. Prayers and hymns singing precede the breaking of 'cesnica'. This bread varies by region and may be a simple peasant bread, a sweet bread or even something akin to baklava.

Christmas in Greece

The Holy Nativity of Christ is observed as one of the holiest days of the ecclesiastical year. November 15th marks the beginning of the Holy Nativity Fast all the way to December 24th, Christmas Eve. The Greek Orthodox Church follows the new calendar and therefore celebrates Christmas on December 25th. All Orthodox Christians who practice the Faith attend the various holy services throughout the 40-day fast. The Holy Nativity fast is not as austere as the fast during Great Lent. Christmas is a time for family worship and receiving Holy Communion as a family.

On the day and evening before Christmas and New Year's, children sing the equivalent of carols (kalanda) from house to house. The Orthodox Christmas songs and hymns bring a special blessing to the homes where they are sung at. Often the songs are accompanied by small metal triangles and little clay drums. The children are frequently rewarded with sweets and dried fruits.

The word carol comes from a Greek dance called a choraulein, which was accompanied by flute music. The dance later spread throughout Europe and became especially popular with the French, who replaced the flute music with singing. People originally performed carols on several occasions during the year. Gift giving traditionally takes place on New Year's Day, the Feast-Day of Saint Basil the Great.

Christopsomo (Christ's bread or Christmas bread) is served at the main Christmas meal. There is no better bread to bake for the holiday season than this delicious Greek Christmas bread. Christopsomo, a slightly sweet, light, buttery bread, infused with cinnamon, orange and cloves, all the warm flavors of Christmas. Like all Greek religious holy days, there are special foods and pastries that are made for special occasions. Some of the celebratory foods made at Christmas in Greece are favorites such as Kourabiethes and Melomakarona, although of all foods, bread has the most religious significance in the Orthodox Christian Tradition.

The Christmas bread is usually round in shape, the top is decorated from the dough with a Byzantine cross flavored with aniseed, the ends of the cross swirling around golden walnuts. There are many, many variations to this recipe all over Greece. For example, the Christopsomo in Crete is covered with sesame seeds.

Lamb and pork are roasted in ovens and open spits and there are large family dinners.

As one can see that not all Orthodox Churches and Countries celebrate the Birth of Christ (Christmas) on the same day. Some use the Julian calendar and others the Gregorian calendar. There are 13 days difference between the two calendars.

We, Orthodox Christians, focus acutely on the aspect of the Incarnation of God and the cosmic salvation it has for all mankind. While many of the external trappings are the same, like Christmas trees, wreaths, ribbons, gifts, foods, celebrations, there is an increased emphasis on the spiritual reality of this truly miraculous and Divine Mystery of God becoming man, so that man be united to God and to one another.


With sincere agape in His Holy Nativity,
The sinner and unworthy servant of God

+Father George