Last summer, I had the opportunity to take part in an exchange with students from Serbia, North Macedonia and Bosnia & Herzegovina. Whilst out in Belgrade, I learnt so much about the culture and history of Yugoslavia that I didn’t know before. One thing that struck me was the beautiful churches and the strong faith that was still a part of people’s daily lives over there, no matter what generation you came from.
Almost 85% of Serbians are a part of the Eastern Orthodox Church. They follow the Julian calendar meaning they are 13 days behind the Gregorian calendar that the rest of Europe follows, so Christmas falls on 7 January.
Mrs Mariana Greenan, church warden of the Russian Orthodox Church of the Intercession of the Holy Mother of God in Manchester, shares more about her faith:
“The origin of the Church goes back to the early days of Christianity. The Universal Christian Church was united, but gradually there was an estrangement between Christians of the West, based in Rome, and Christians of the East in Constantinople, leading to a split between Western Christians and Eastern Christians, Catholics and Orthodox.”
Fr. David, parish priest of St Nicholas Orthodox Church, Blackley, was not born into the Orthodox church as many of his congregation were. He was born in the UK and raised a Christian but admits that growing up, he didn’t know what Orthodox was.
“In those days it was much smaller in the UK than it is now. Soon after leaving university, I had a friend who was looking at the Orthodox faith – he felt it was the most ‘complete’ version of Christianity and – to cut a long story short – he convinced me of it too. After a period of instruction / study I was joined – we say Chrismated – with the Orthodox Church, firstly as a lay person and later on was ordained.”
He outlines the main similarities and differences between Orthodox and the bigger denominations in this country:
“In our keeping of the Holy Tradition, we have remained closest to the full faith taught by Jesus and his immediate followers, the apostles. In most ways we are similar to all the big denominations you will commonly find in the UK – the differences are often small, technical (and to be honest sometimes pretty obscure). The main difference that will strike you if you come into contact with the Orthodox church is the majority of it in the UK is still ethnically based (maybe Greek or Romanian or Russian, say). The congregations have many immigrants and the services may be in a foreign language. This is gradually changing though and parishes are welcoming to people from all backgrounds.”
Orthodox Christianity is the main denomination in many countries across Europe, not just Serbia. Russia, Ukraine, Romania, Greece, Belarus, Bulgaria, Moldova, Georgia, North Macedonia, Cyprus, and Montenegro are all predominantly Orthodox. According to the last census, there are just short of half a million Orthodox Christians in the UK, many of whom have ties to Eastern Europe but have made the UK their home.
So, as the rest of the country packs away their Christmas decorations for another year, there is a community of people who are just about to celebrate the birth of Christ. Orthodox Christians throughout Manchester woke up today and celebrated Christmas within their churches.
Advent in the Orthodox church is a much stricter affair than it is in Catholicism, the Church of England or Methodism as Mrs Greenan shares. “To prepare for Christmas, the Advent fast begins on 28 November and ends on 6 January. In practical terms Orthodox must abstain from eating meat and any rich food (no Christmas parties in December!)”
For Fr. David at St Nicholas, these past few weeks as they prepare for Christmas has been his busiest time of the year. “We have special services on Christmas Eve and in the period called Advent, which we use to prepare ourselves for Christmas. As part of our tradition, we take Advent more seriously than is now the case in the UK – people who visit majority Orthodox countries in December are often surprised to find there is no trace of the festival (no decorations, no parties, etc.) until the day itself.”
However, on the day many outside of the Orthodox church will relate to celebrations held as friends and family get together. “Christmas Day will be celebrated in the Church itself with a special service in the morning, followed by a celebratory meal which starts our festive period. In many ways the traditions in Orthodox homes are ones everyone will recognise; it is a time for wider families to meet up, exchange presents and celebrate together with singing, special drinks and lots and lots of food!” Fr. David enthuses.
Mrs Greenan talks us through the day at the Russian Orthodox Church: “We celebrate as a community in church, eating all that we could not eat during the Fast. This festive meal takes place after the Holy Liturgy, in the early hours of 7 January. First there will be the services of Vespers and Matins, followed by the celebration of the Liturgy of the Nativity (night services).”
However, since many of the Orthodox churches have a connection to a particular ethnicity, you may not find the traditional turkey dinner waiting for you after the service. “The food on the table may not look that familiar though – no turkey or sprouts,” Fr. David explains, “Each Orthodox country has its own particular special foods for the occasion, based on the local cuisine – ultimately what it is possible to grow and have available at this time of year.”
There is another key difference to the day as well for some Orthodox Christians and that’s the gifting of presents. “What is often different also, is the date presents are given out. This varies, but in many countries they are given out on the feast of St Nicholas or Santa Claus (which falls on 6 December) and not Christmas Day.”
Luckily, this year Christmas Day falls upon a Saturday, meaning most of Fr. David and Mrs Greenan’s congregations will be able to join in the festivities without having to worry about school and work. However, this is not always the case and with the religion being in the minority in this country, it can be difficult to get the time off to celebrate as they would like and it’s not just Christmas that is affected as Fr. David explains:
“The fact that we are following the Julian calendar means our big religious festivals do not align with the appropriate bank holidays – not only Christmas and Boxing Day but also for example, Good Friday / Easter. Hopefully people can save up time off and/or have accommodating employers, meaning they can celebrate these occasions fully.”
He continues, “One particular issue is that Christmas is a time for children but more often than not, the schools have resumed by 7 January, so they cannot attend the church services or travel to meet up with relatives. This year though, 7 January is a Saturday and more people than usual should be able to join in, including the children.”
So wherever you are in Manchester today, whatever you are doing, spare a thought for our community of Orthodox Christians who are gathering together in churches across the area to celebrate the birth of Christ. Merry Christmas!
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