Today’s Christmas Eve for the Orthodox community

STEUBENVILLE – It’s Christmas Eve today for Serbian Orthodox Christians and with that comes unique traditions observed at Holy Resurrection Serbian Orthodox Church at 528 N. Fourth St.

Christmas Eve services, for example, begin with the blessing and burning of the Badnjak, or yule log, at 8 p.m. today, typically a brief outdoor ceremony, according to the Rev. Rade Merick, if the weather doesn’t interfere.

“We’ll have to see if we can do it because of the anticipated cold,” Merick said of the ceremony that will be modified to suit weather conditions, possibly with an indoor blessing.

Afterward comes the Christmas vigil service – a service that revolves around an icon representing the Nativity of Jesus Christ.

“An icon is a picture which depicts something from the life of Christ or one of the saints,” Merick said of what are called “windows into heaven.”

“The icon tells the whole story of the birth of Christ,” Merick explained in referring to different scenes on it.

“We have the angels talking to the shepherds – there’s a shepherd over here – and the wise men coming; the Christ child laying in the manger with the animals; the mother of Christ, who’s now resting after having given birth, and you’ll see that they’re in a cave because traditionally in the church, if you go to the church the nativity in Bethlehem there is a cavern that’s underneath the main altar of the church, and that’s traditionally where Christ is supposed to have been born,” he said.

“It’s not like a barn like we always see them in creches and whatever – it was a cave that was used as a place to keep the animals,” Merick said.

“Among the things that are interesting about the icon is we have some women who are helping out washing the Christ child,” he said. “One of the ideas is in the early church there were people who couldn’t really believe that God became a human being, and so what they did is they put this in to show that he had a real body, and he had to be washed, and that he was just like us.”

“Down in this corner, we have Joseph, and this old hunchback man is Satan, and we have Satan tempting Joseph to disbelieve in the virgin birth,” Merick said.

“In the Orthodox church, whenever we have a major feast day we always place the icon of that particular feast day in the center of the church,” Merick explained.

“This is what we’re going to do on Christmas Eve (tonight) at the vigil service for the Nativity of Christ,” he said. “We’ll bring the icon out, and everybody will come to venerate the icon, and we also bless bread, wheat, wine and oil at that service because those are the things that are kind of necessities, basics of life. We bless those things and ask God to multiply them in his creation, and then we are all anointed with the oil, and all partake of the bread and wine as well as a symbol of the good things that God gives us,” said Merick, who marked his first Christmas in Steubenville in 1987.

“It’s very festive,” Merick said of the service.

Another tradition is the placement of straw around the icon, on the church floor and in the homes of parishioners, typically under the table on Christmas Eve to symbolize the humility of Christ.

That tradition, Merick explained, is kenosis in Greek, “the self-emptying of one’s own will and becoming entirely receptive to God’s divine will.”

“St. Paul talks about that, that Christ lowers himself, condescends to become one of us, and this shows his humility, because through the emptying of himself, he’s God and yet he becomes one of us,” Merick said. “He becomes a creature like the rest of us, and so that humility is a very important aspect of what Christ does for us, and how we should be to show that we need to be humble before God and before each other in the same way.”

Traditional hot drinks are served following the services – a beverage composed of sugar, hot water and plum brandy.

“There are a lot of things Serbians do with the holiday, lots and lots of different customs and variations depending on where they came from in the old country, but we grow wheat,” Merick said in citing one of those traditions. The wheat is “to remind us of the life that Christ brings us even in the middle of winter time.”

The celebration of Christmas is prefaced by days of fasting as the Nativity Fast is actually observed for 40 days prior.

The traditional Christmas feast includes a centerpiece of green wheat symbolizing life and rebirth, and cesnica, or the traditional round sweet bread, which is baked with a coin inside. The person who finds the coin is said to have special blessings throughout the year. It also is customary in Serbian homes to roast a small suckling pig for Christmas.

The Christmas Divine Liturgy will be held at 10 a.m. on Tuesday at Holy Resurrection. A traditional Serbian Christmas dinner will be available at the Serbian-American Cultural Center in Weirton from noon to 5 p.m. Contact the center at (304) 723-7372 for information.

Liturgies also will served at 10 a.m. Wednesday for the second day of Christmas dedicated to the Mother of God and 10 a.m. Thursday on the third day dedicated to St. Stephen the First Martyr.

Holy Resurrection is one of only two Orthodox churches in the valley to still use the old Julian Calendar, which was in use at the time of the birth of Christ, and is 13 days behind the usual civil calendar. Thus, Jan. 7 on the civil calendar is Dec. 25, Christmas, on the Julian Calendar.

While there are “quite a few” Orthodox Christians in the area, few celebrate Christmas on the old calendar locally.

Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church and Holy Transfiguration Orthodox Church, both in Steubenville, celebrate on the new calendar, he said.

“We’re the only ones in this area that are still celebrating on the old calendar,” Merick said. The closest other one marking Christmas this week is in Barton around St. Clairsville.

Holy Resurrection serves Orthodox Christians from throughout the Upper Ohio Valley.

(Kiaski can be contacted at