Christmas in Fear, or Looking over One’s Shoulder at the Crèche

Scanning recent news sources, anyone preparing for the upcoming celebration of Christmas might wonder how exactly we can manage to celebrate wholeheartedly in a global climate of terrorist attacks, massive migrations of traumatized war victims and economic refugees, and generalized fear for the future. Commentators, syndicated columnists and political cartoonists in recent times have highlighted the sharp dichotomy between what, for Christians, is above all a season of light in the darkness and a growing sense of apprehension that the darkness is in fact gaining on us.

Admittedly other periods of history have known serious gaps between the hoped-for “comfort and joy” of Christmas and prevailing conditions. Yet one only need recall depictions of soldiers in the trenches of World War I, managing to mark Christmas by temporarily replacing hostilities with fraternization, to appreciate the resilience of Christians determined to celebrate Christmas. Their act was extraordinary, but the impulse behind it is not unique. In wartime, following natural disasters, or in times of crisis, families pull together a makeshift Christmas with fewer places at the dinner table, and celebrate as best they can—often “for the sake of the children.”

In the mid-fourth century, a huddle of Christians in North Africa faced an even more immediate threat: that of targeted persecution, torture and execution by their own government, for the crime of being Christian (more specifically, the wrong type of Christian). The earliest Christmas sermon we possess was preached, not in times of peace and safety, but in a fearful situation.

The Bishop’s Sermon on Christmas

In 1922, the Benedictine monk André Wilmart published a critical edition and commentary on a homily attributed to the mid-fourth-century Bishop Optatus of Milevis in Numidia, North Africa.[1] The manuscript exists in two editions, and while the version preserved in a homily collection at Fleury-sur-Loire, dating from the first half of the eighth century, carries the attribution to Optatus of Milevis,[2] a Carolingian-era copy preserved in the old ducal library at Wolfenbuttel does not.[3] The only other extant manuscript authored by Optatus was a historical account and rebuttal of the Donatists and specifically of Parmenianus, successor to Donatus as Bishop of Carthage, dated 364–375 for the first six books. A seventh was written a decade later. Wilmart’s argument for Optatus’s authorship of this sermon rests not only upon the attribution in the Fleury manuscript, but upon on the occurrence of a dozen similar expressions, some stylistic markers, a few identical mistakes in the Latin, and the overall energetic and simple (if a bit long-winded) approach, also present in Optatus’s anti-Donatist work.

This sermon represents the earliest liturgical evidence for a feast of the Nativity of the Lord on December 25, and may constitute the earliest credible textual witness to a Nativity feast in the West, aside from possibly spurious additions to the text of the Chronograph of Philocalus of 354. These additions were thought to constitute the earliest notation of a Nativity feast on that date in a Western calendar, using source material dated by many twentieth-century scholars from the year 336. This alone makes this sermon text significant for tracing the historical origins of the Nativity feast: it may be the earliest reliable extant witness.

What makes this particular sermon interesting for our purposes, however, was its real subject: not the Nativity account in the second chapter of Luke, nor any of the associated Christmas pericopes apart from the coming of the Magi. For Christmas, Optatus takes the massacre of the Holy Innocents, Matthew 2:16–18, as his primary text.[4] That scripture text, plus some specific references in the sermon itself, indicate that this sermon was most likely preached in the years 361–363 during the persecutions of Christians under the emperor Julian, traditionally known as “Julian the Apostate.” Officially, Christians in the then-overstretched and increasingly fragmented Roman Empire had enjoyed civil protection from persecution since Constantine’s Edict of Milan in 313, and in fact the Christian religion was in the midst of a massive surge in popularity. But Julian attributed the cause of the incipient breakdown of the grandeur and strength of Rome to a failure to honor and appease the ancient gods of Rome. In fact, already the first generation of Christians had been persecuted out of fear that tolerating a sub-group of residents who refused to sacrifice to the gods would result in calamity for the population as a whole when the gods took their revenge. Julian seems to have been convinced that nothing short of bringing back that old-time religion would stabilize the Empire and put it to rights with the heavenly powers.

Julian, however, did not persecute all Christians. His animus was against Nicene Christians—those who taught the pre-existence of Christ in a Trinitarian Godhead. In North Africa, which in matters of both church and state lay close to Rome, this meant expanding the already yawning gap between Nicene and Donatist Christians, a chasm that had resulted from the contested election of Donatus as Bishop of Carthage and the unseating of Caecilian. Donatists were, in many regions, the predominant Christian faction and considered themselves the pure remnant that had remained faithful during the last widespread persecutions under Diocletian in the first decade of the fourth century. They thought themselves the heirs of the early martyrs, and they fought hard to extend their influence, even through violent bands of roving gangs known as Circumcellions who terrorized the local populations.

Julian’s strategy was to split the Christians even further by favoring the Donatists, releasing some of their adherents from prison and revoking some of the restrictions imposed on them by the emperors Constantine and Constantius some years before. This disconcerting reversal of their preferred identity as the self-righteous martyr-elite did not sit at all well with them.

So Optatus’s frightened community in Milevis was under intense threat from two sides. And on the feast of the Nativity he attempted, through his preaching, to support and strengthen his people by placing the events that terrified them into the context of their faith.

The brief introductory paragraph on the mystery of Christ’s Nativity is followed by an extensive section on the story of “insane” Herod’s murderous persecution of the innocent children: If “secular powers” (a clear reference to the Romans) hate us, they first hated the one who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. From the beginning of time innocence has suffered for the sake of truth, and the just ones will surely be saved. In the same way the Church, once persecuted, will enter into glory, and this is the hope of all Christians. Like the Magi, Christians present their gifts to God: the gold of their steadfast faith, the frankincense of their holiness of life and charity, and the myrrh of their suffering. Our faith is the gold tried in the fire. Let us hope therefore in the Lord, and we will be liberated from the devil and escorted by the angels.

Optatus, a local bishop caught in a firestorm of terror in a newly aggressive anti-Christian climate in Roman Africa, brought his own distinguished, though not brilliant, oratorical and theological skills to bear on the desperate pastoral needs of his people. He could not promise them physical safety, but in a carefully worked-out exhortation to courage, he set their fear of sudden attack into a solid scriptural framework and promised them peace, if only in the life to come.

A Stubborn Hope

So what of us? Preaching that all will be well in the next life will most likely not find ready acceptance among many contemporary Christians, who are only too likely to dismiss such ideas as “pie in the sky.” Indeed, popular culture fosters a certain degree of cynicism as a realistic attitude fully justified by the facts. And, to make matters worse, not only the news but also our entertainment is saturated with dread: We’ve seen all too many crime shows and apocalyptic movies that vividly illustrate the many things we fear. Hope does not come easily to us. Yet the Christmas we have, despite the pockmarks of cheap glitz, commercial exploitation, and plain greed, does embody a certain hope. It makes promises we cannot keep yet cannot abandon: promises of peace on earth in spite of organized terror, and of good will to all persons even as the social and economic gaps grow wider.

Christians drape lights on the trees, bake the cookies, attend the children’s pageants and flock to Midnight Mass even when we might not have thought of church all year. Our hopes, perhaps our hope against hope, lie under the surface of our seasonal customs and pervade our dogged resolution to honor the mysteries we cannot explain. We do not let the bullies win—be they fourth century Circumcellions or twenty-first century terrorists. And we celebrate Christmas with the best we have at hand.

L-R Prof's Gregory Bloomquist, Susan Roll and Jane Dawson

Susan K. Roll is Associate Professor in the Faculty of Theology at Saint Paul University in Ottawa, Canada.  Her specializations are in liturgy, sacraments and feminist theology, particularly the liturgical year, sacraments of initiation, and women in ministry.  She holds a PhD degree from the Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium, with top honors, and has taught previously at Christ the King Seminary, Saint Michael’s College in Vermont and at Notre Dame University.  She is the author of Toward the Origins of Christmas (Kampen: Kok-Pharos, 1995), several edited volumes on women and spirituality, and numerous articles and papers.



[1] André Wilmart, « Un Sermon de saint Optat pour la fête de Noël, » Revue de sciences religieuses 2 (1922) : 271–302

[2] Wilmart specifies this as Manuscript nr. 131 in the municipal library of Orléans, pp 78–87.

[3] MS. 4096, folio 8 verso to 12 recto. This had been published in a 1918 edition of sermons of Saint Augustine by D. Morin.

[4] The Feast of the Holy Innocents dates only from the sixth century.


This material is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0  License.

Recommended Citation: Roll, Susan K. (2016) “Christmas in Fear, or Looking over One’s Shoulder at the Creche,” The Yale ISM Review: Vol. 3: No. 1, Article 5. Available at

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The Grinch that Didn’t Steal Christmas: A Reformation Story

It is easy to believe that the John Calvin of legend sought to excise anything men and women might associate with joy and celebration. Even his contemporaries imagined his supposedly theocratic Geneva to be a gloomy haven for killjoys, and at one point it was widely rumored that the French reformer had personally abolished Sunday, banishing divine rest from the week. The accusation of hostility to church festivals dogged him most of his years as a reformer but was not true. Certainly, the Reformation witnessed the scrubbing of the Christian calendar through the removal of saints’ days and various traditional feasts, but Christmas remained central to the life of the new churches.

Reformed Protestants of the sixteenth century continued to celebrate Christmas and Easter, marking the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, along with Pentecost and Ascension. For the sixteenth-century Reformers, it was one thing to remove the superstitious veneration of saints but entirely another to follow through the year the life of Christ as told in the gospels. Calvin sought to reclaim Christmas as a celebration of Christ’s Nativity, a defining moment for Christians, without making the festival binding on the faithful. At the same time, his intention was to purge the holiday of the excesses of public exuberance traditionally associated with both the feast and what he viewed as the “abomination” of the Mass. It was a difficult balancing act and one not followed by his first spiritual descendants in the English-speaking world.

The hostility of later Puritans and Presbyterians to Christmas as a pagan and popish innovation, occasionally called “foolstide” in England, was anticipated by Calvin, who sought to persuade his contemporaries not to make the issue of religious holidays a matter of conscience. In seventeenth-century England, the twelve days of Christmas were traditionally celebrated with feasting, dancing, and general revelry, drawing the sustained ire of Puritans. One disapproving figure reflected that the youth were “so addicted to their toys and Christmas sports that they will not be weaned from them.” The Puritans sought to turn Christmas into a fast day, with an act of Parliament in 1643 declaring that it should be observed “with the more solemn humiliation because it may call to remembrance our sins, and the sins of our forefathers who have turned this Feast, pretending the memory of Christ, into an extreme forgetfulness of him, by giving liberty to carnal and sensual delights.” Two years later, the Directory of Public Worship was unequivocal that feasts such as Christmas had no warrant in scripture. The attack on Christmas in England was sustained, fierce, hugely divisive, and ultimately a failure. The festival was restored under Charles II in 1660 to much public acclaim.

North of the Scottish border, when Christmas was abolished by Parliament in 1640 it was declared that “The kirke within this kingdome is now purged of all superstitious observatione of dayes.” The legacy lasted almost four hundred years, and Christmas was not restored as a public holiday in Scotland until 1958, remaining to this day very much in the shadow of Hogmanay (New Year). Across the Atlantic, the Puritans of New England demonstrated their contempt for Christmas festivities by ensuring that the day was filled with godly labor.

Such hostility to Christmas among later Calvinists obscures our understanding of the Frenchman’s own thoughtful and subtle perspective. While Calvin would never have approved of the excesses and worldliness of the Christmas celebrations so despised by Puritans and Presbyterians, he remained profoundly attached to the marking of Christ’s Nativity in the life of the church, and he was not alone.

The Reformation largely embraced Christmas. In Huldrych Zwingli’s Zurich, the first Reformed church, we find that following the abolition of saints’ days the new church continued to observe Christmas, the Circumcision of Christ, Easter, Ascension, and Pentecost. For each of these occasions, selected passages from the Bible were read to the assembled faithful. At Christmas, not surprisingly, the reading was the second chapter of the gospel of Luke together with the second chapter (v. 11f) of Titus. At Easter the Resurrection story from Mark 16 was read alongside Colossians 3 and Psalm 113. Maundy Thursday and Good Friday were marked at the morning service with the passages relating the washing of the feet. In the afternoon ministers preached on the first part of the Passion story. On Good Friday sermons were to treat the remaining portion of the Passion narrative. Crucially, on both the Thursday and the Friday of Holy Week the Lord’s Supper was to be celebrated. The most sacred days of the Christian year were marked by scripture, preaching, and the sacrament of the table. To underscore the departure from Catholic practices, the celebration of Christmas was held on the nearest Sunday, aligning the feast with the most holy seventh day of the week, of which Calvin says in his commentary on Genesis 2:3, “That is a sacred rest, which withdraws men from the impediments of the world that it may dedicate them entirely to God.”

Calvin’s attachment to Christmas ran deeper than mere preservation of tradition. For the Frenchman, Christmas and Easter formed the two most holy days of the year, and he set aside his regular practice of preaching through the books of the Bible, known as lectio continua, to hold sermons on the Nativity and the Passion of Christ. Some of Calvin’s most moving words from the pulpit flowed from his preaching at Christmas. Speaking on the Nativity of Christ, Calvin drew his audience to consider the transformative joy of festival, declaring that it was a time for celebration in this world in preparation for the next. “Cursed then are all enjoyments, all honors, all things desirable, until we feel that God received us in mercy. Being thus reconciled with him we can enjoy ourselves, not merely with an earthly joy, but especially with that joy that is promised to us in the Holy Spirit, in order that we may seek it in him.”

The question of feast days and whether they were appropriate for Christians was important for Calvin because it spoke to the freedom of faithful men and women. Calvin briefly addressed the subject of Christmas on a few occasions, seeking to reclaim the festival, as his sermon declared, as a time of joy. The two most significant references come from the 1550s, a particularly fraught time for the Reformer as he faced a range of opponents, including those on the ruling council of Geneva. In 1553, Reformation Europe had been rocked by the trial and execution in Geneva of Michael Servetus, who was condemned as a heretic, wrongly in the eyes of Calvin’s many critics. Hostility between the Reformed and Lutheran churches over the Lord’s Supper reached a high water mark, while Calvin battled with the church in Bern, a powerful city that sought to establish its control over its client Geneva.

It was to the Reformer in Bern, Johannes Haller, that Calvin wrote a letter defending himself against those who claimed he was responsible for the abrogation of holy days. Calvin was clearly deeply sensitive to the accusations, arguing not only that it was the work of zealous officials in Geneva, but also that the magistrates had acted without his knowledge or consent. His own position on Christmas, he continued, was more tempered. “Besides, the abolition of feast days here,” he wrote,

has given grievous offense to some of your people [in Bern] and it is likely enough that much unpleasant talk has been circulating among you. I am pretty certain, also, that I get the credit of being the author of the whole matter, both among the malevolent and the ignorant. But as I can solemnly testify that it was accomplished without my knowledge and without my desire, so I resolved from the first rather to weaken malice by silence, than be over-solicitous about my defense. Before I even entered the city, there were no festivals but the Lord’s Day. Those celebrated by you [in Bern] were approved by the same public decree by which Farel and I were expelled; and it was rather extorted by the tumultuous violence of the ungodly, than decreed according to the order of law. Since my recall, I have pursued the moderate course of keeping Christ’s birth-day as you are wont to do.

What did Calvin mean by “moderate” course? For him, religious holidays fell into the category of external matters, or adiaphora, as he pointed out to the magistrates of Bern in 1555. “Respecting ceremonies,” he wrote, “because they are things indifferent, the churches have a certain latitude of diversity. And when one has well weighed the matter, it may be sometimes considered useful not to have too rigid a uniformity respecting them, in order to show that faith and Christianity do not consist in that.” Whether a church chose to mark Christmas was to be left to its own judgment. Calvin was personally in favor, but he did not want the festival made a litmus test for faithfulness. That standard was found alone in obedience to the Word, which any true festival should proclaim and celebrate.

Calvin the pastor was well aware of the problems caused by the abolition of ceremonies to which the people were attached, and his conclusion was that churches and communities should be left to determine for themselves the number of holidays to be celebrated and to do so in a manner most congenial to peace and concord. To this end, he even proposed a practical way of dealing with Christmas and other occasions. “The most feasible means,” he writes, “that could be devised for that purpose seemed to be to keep the holy day in the morning, and open the shops in the afternoon.” (1555)

Calvin’s expansive attitude towards Christmas was shared by his close colleague and friend Heinrich Bullinger, who when drafting the Second Helvetic Confession in 1566, two years after Calvin’s death, declared:

Moreover, if the churches do religiously celebrate the memory of the Lord’s Nativity, Circumcision, Passion, Resurrection, and of his Ascension into heaven, and the sending of the Holy Spirit upon his disciples, according to Christian liberty, we do very well approve of it. But as for festival days, ordained for men or saints departed, we cannot allow of them.

Like Calvin, Bullinger saw the celebration of Christmas and other festivals as a matter of Christian liberty—as among those matters left to the church to decide according to its faithful interpretation of the Word of God and for the good of the particular community.

Particularly in the transatlantic worlds of Puritanism and Presbyterianism Christmas formed the center of an ideological battle between competing visions of true religion. The principles concerning the freedom of the Christian that marked the attitude of Calvin and other figures of the Reformation were lost in the cacophony of arguments of a later, bitter age. Calvin’s name might be readily associated with hostility to Christmas, but that would be news to him.

bruce-gordonBruce Gordon is the Titus Street Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Yale Divinity School. He also teaches in the history department at Yale. The focus of his research has been on the Reformation, particularly in German-speaking lands, and the Reformed tradition. He has written a biography of John Calvin (Yale, 2009) and, recently, John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion: A Biography (Princeton, 2016). He works on cultures of death and dying in the late-medieval and early modern periods, and is currently finishing a book on Protestant Latin Bibles in the sixteenth century. 


This material is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0  License.

Recommended Citation: Gordon, Bruce. (2016) “The Grinch that Didn’t Steal Christmas: A Reformation Story,” The Yale ISM Review: Vol. 3: No. 1, Article 6. Available at

PDF: the-grinch-that-didnt-steal-christmas_gordon

A Meeting of Domestic and Liturgical Rites: Joy and Light in Orthodox Christmas

How do Eastern Orthodox[1] Christians observe Christmas? What does it mean for Orthodox people? One method for developing a substantial response to this question is to examine the entire liturgical context of the Christmas season in Orthodoxy and present a theological synthesis. This response might be quite satisfactory and beautiful. The liturgies of Christmas offer a formidable liturgical theology to the attentive observer.

Orthodoxy’s investment of gravitas and solemnity in Christmas is manifest by a handful of outstanding liturgical features: a forty-day fasting season precedes Christmas, preparing the faithful to hear the news of the Incarnation of God’s Son. An intense, strict fast is observed on Christmas Eve, accentuating the need for awareness, focus, and energy to meet the newborn King. The liturgical cycle of Christmas is full and rich. The proclamation of the Word on the two Sundays before Christmas reintroduces various holy men and women of God to the people, and is elaborated by the hymns. The Sunday before Christmas features the reading of Matthew’s genealogy, which proclaims Christ as the fulfillment of God’s appointment of holy ones to represent God in and to the world.

But the true liturgical riches arrive with Christmas Eve: the Royal Hours offer an office of scripture, hymns, and psalmody, inaugurating the celebration of Jesus’s birth for those who want to hear the Word. The Vespers with the Liturgy of St. Basil appointed for Christmas Eve continues the festal observance, disclosing Jesus as God’s only Son who is also the perfect image of the Father, sent into the world to reform the distorted image of God in each person. The hymns include short refrains, enabling the people to sing along. As the day of Christmas Eve concludes, the faithful are permitted a modest Lenten meal before returning to church for the Vigil service, which customarily consists of Great Compline followed by Matins. Finally, on Christmas morning, the Divine Liturgy is celebrated. As with all major church holidays, Orthodox musicians have composed special settings for hymns particular to the Christmas feast.

Thus, a glance at the liturgical ordo for Christmas leaves one with the impression of a great solemnity complete with preparation, saturated with the Word of God, and decorated with musical masterpieces.

In reality, Orthodox pastors confront the same challenges experienced by Western Christians at Christmas. Pastoral appeals for quiet observance, fasting, almsgiving, and an increase in liturgical participation are frustrated by overindulgence in holiday parties and consumerism. The hangovers of rich food and wine cloud minds and rob the faithful of the sharp awareness and attention directed towards the Lord, who is coming. For the faithful Christian who makes an effort, the stress of calculating vacation time and creating a suitable budget for gifts is distracting and can produce anxiety. A stark reality for many Orthodox people in the West is managing family obligations for Christmas. For example, a given family—especially one hosting guests—might be able to attend two liturgies at most, one on Christmas Eve and another on Christmas morning. Or a family might be able to participate in only one Orthodox Christmas liturgy, which brings us from the ideal liturgical theology of Christmas offered by the liturgical cycle to the realities of contemporary popular participation.

As in the West, Orthodoxy boasts a joyful domestic observance of the feast that coheres with the height of the liturgical theology of Christmas. These domestic traditions are marked by regional accents, and for this essay I will refer to examples from the Ukrainian Orthodox tradition, which are highlighted by the Christmas Eve dinner and the tradition of caroling. Joy and light permeate both the liturgical and domestic observances of Christmas, and I will reflect on the relationship between the ideal liturgical theology of Christmas and that held by the people in their popular traditions.

Orthodox Christmas: Christology and Exhortation in a Cosmic Celebration

The hymns appointed for Orthodox Christmas reflect Greek patristic Christology and honor a cosmic celebration of Jesus’s birth. The first hymn appointed for Vespers on Christmas Eve identifies Christ as the “Image of the Father” whose birth ends the separation of humanity from communion with God:[2]

Come, let us greatly rejoice in the Lord as we tell of this present mystery. The middle wall of partition has been destroyed; the flaming sword turns back, the cherubim withdraw from the tree of life, and I partake of the delight of Paradise from which I was cast out through disobedience. For the express Image of the Father, the Imprint of His eternity, takes the form of a servant, and without undergoing change He comes forth from a Mother who knew not wedlock. . . . Unto Him let us cry aloud: God born of a virgin, have mercy upon us.

The hymn opening Vespers exhorts the people to be joyful: God is in their midst, and God has restored the communion lost through sin by taking on the form of a servant. The hymn blends the elements of exhortation, wonder, and paradox: the true God becomes a servant, and true to the Greek Christological tradition, God relinquishes none of God’s divine nature but assumes the human condition in need of divine mercy. The hymns appointed for the feast tend to return to the Christology of late antique Christianity, referring to the revelation of a Christ who is “Light of Light, Brightness of the Father.”[3] This act of God requires an appropriate response from the faithful, and in addition to joy, the Christian community is obliged to offer God a gift:[4]

What shall we offer Thee, O Christ, who for our sakes hast appeared on earth as man? Every creature made by Thee offers Thee thanks. The angels offer Thee a hymn; the heavens a star; the Magi, gifts; the shepherds, their wonder; the earth, its cave; the wilderness, the manger; and we offer Thee a virgin Mother. O pre-eternal God, have mercy on us.

The genius of this particular hymn lies in the layers it creates for gift-giving. The hymn identifies Christ as the gift given for humanity (“who for our sakes” has appeared). But the opening verse challenges the liturgical participants to consider their responses to God’s gift of Christ, with the expectation that our response will be to offer our own gift. What, then, are the faithful to offer in exchange for Christ? The hymn offers examples from the gospel narratives of Christmas, referring to creation’s accommodations for Christ. The possibilities for practical reflection are almost inexhaustible here. One could certainly begin with the implications of offering God a “virgin mother,” an opportunity to reflect on Mary’s humility, suffering, and service through participating in God’s plan to dwell among us in Christ. Parishes can use this hymn as a tool for reflection for the ordinary person in the pew who is concerned about fulfilling obligations by assembling a gift list for family and friends. Christian faithful are called to participate in a gift-exchange with God, one which is regularly practiced in the Eucharistic Liturgy. Even tepid participation in the Christmas liturgy can awaken the spiritual senses in such a way that the season inspires the faithful to think about how the gift that they offer to God in thanksgiving for Christ might permeate the gifts that they offer one another with Christmas carols and egg nog in front of the tree.

The People’s Theology in Domestic Gatherings

The theological possibilities that I have presented above should be challenged by reality: what happens if there are few present to hear the exhortations of this hymn? How can the invitation to share in the life of God and respond by becoming a giver of gifts reach those for whom Christmas is primarily a domestic celebration? Having established that this is a reality for Orthodox Christianity, I will conclude this essay by pointing to examples of the “people’s faith”—festal traditions that have emerged alongside the liturgical and that offer pastors some relief by demonstrating that the inner message of Christmas is reaching the people who are at home.

Many Orthodox and Greco-Catholic Ukrainians, Slovaks, and Carpatho-Rusyns continue to observe the domestic traditions of the holy supper (“свята вечера”), which would presumably take place before the Vigil of Christmas Eve.[5] The holy supper originated as an agrarian feast of the winter solstice, where families would mark the winter solstice with a feast and perform domestic rituals including religious rites seeking protection from evil spirits and fierce beasts that might threaten the security of the family’s home. After the Christianization of this region, the domestic ritual took on a Christian note, and the evening ritual became a solemn meal honoring the birth of the Savior. The details of the meal constitute a paradox, since Christmas Eve is a strict fast. The foods prepared for the meal adhere to the fundamental fasting rules, but there is often an abundance of food, including fish and dumplings. The environment is festive, more the inauguration of the celebration that reaches its peak on Christmas Day itself.

The Ukrainian tradition literally has hundreds of carols, and dozens of variations on each of them. My presentation does not do justice to the wealth and depth of this tradition, but I offer examples from popular carols to show how the domestic tradition echoes the liturgical by expressing the theology of the feast through vivid imagination.

One of the most popular carols sung by the people, often by memory, is titled “Бог предвічний” (“The Pre-eternal God”). This carol is quite short, so we can present a translation of the entire text:[6]

The pre-eternal God is born!
Today he has come from heaven, to save and comfort his people, and is glad! (repeated)
He is born in Bethlehem!
The Messiah, our Christ and our God for us all, is born for us! (repeated)
Let us sing: glory to God!
Give honor to the Son of God and our Savior, give him worship! (repeated)

This simple carol has traditional characteristics of a folk song, with the catchy refrains. The brevity of the text suggests simplicity, evident in the exhortations to sing and render glory to the Son of God. The text draws from the attributes of God iterated in numerous liturgical texts by describing God as “before eternity” (предвічний). Including this sophisticated word in a simple carol is to invite ordinary people to wonder at the mystery of the Incarnation. In other words, quotidian forms of poetry, verse, and song find new ways of communicating the inner message of Christmas to people in domestic settings.[7]

Another popular carol from the Ukrainian tradition, “На йорданській річці” (“At the River Jordan”), imagines Mary, the Mother of God, bathing Jesus in the Jordan before placing him in the manger.[8] The carol reprises episodes from the Gospel narratives, retelling them in folk motifs. After Mary bathes Jesus in the Jordan, she wraps him in silk and places him in a manger near gray oxen, who come and breathe on him. Jesus is then placed on an altar, where three angels are flying nearby, with all of the Cherubim singing. Then, the Three Kings come, and they name Jesus, anoint him with myrrh, and give him flowers.

The imagery of the carol is remarkable. Creation stands in wonder at the birth of Jesus, and we all are reminded that this is the God whom the angels and Cherubim praise in song. The carol has strong Eucharistic overtones (with the altar references) while also prefiguring Jesus’s death and burial. These themes are neither original nor particularly remarkable, as the Nativity narratives themselves echo the primary story of Jesus’s Pascha, but it is the retelling of the story through simple folk motifs and actions without losing the sophistication of the Christmas message itself that is remarkable. The carols impart the same Christology and soteriology expressed by the liturgical hymns, with a different use of images.


Orthodox Christians face the same challenges as the rest of the Christian world with Christmas. The social and domestic demands of the season can drain people of energy, and the reality is that many people will not experience the riches offered through engaging in the complete liturgical cycle. Christmas observance has a strong domestic dimension in the East, and while the forms of that observance differ from their liturgical counterparts, the two are not at odds with one another. Both the liturgical and domestic observances of Christmas express joy and wonder that the God who was before the ages would come and dwell among us, call upon all of creation to come and worship him, and offer God a gift in response to the most precious pearl. The power of the domestic tradition of Christmas should be a source of joy for pastors, because the people have found their own way of honoring the only Son of God that reflects the richness of the liturgical tradition.

[At press time, a rendering of “Бог предвічний” was available on YouTube here and a rendering of “На йорданській річці” was available on YouTube here.]

nicholas-denysenkoNicholas E. Denysenko is Associate Professor of Theological Studies and Director of the Huffington Ecumenical Institute at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. A graduate of St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary (MDiv, 2000) and The Catholic University of America (PhD, 2008), Denysenko specializes in liturgical theology and Orthodox Christianity. His books include The Blessing of Waters and Epiphany (Ashgate, 2012), Chrismation: A Primer for Catholics (Liturgical Press, 2014), and Liturgical Reform After Vatican II: The Impact on Eastern Orthodoxy (Fortress, 2015). He is a deacon of the Orthodox Church in America, Diocese of the West, since 2003.  


[1] The liturgical and musical practices which I discuss here as “Orthodox” are relevant both to Christians of the Eastern Orthodox Church and to Catholics of the Byzantine Rite.

[2] The Festal Menaion, trans. Kallistos Ware and Mother Mary (South Canaan, PA: St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press, 1990), 253.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 254.

[5] The first of the two offices constituting the Christmas Vigil is Great Compline, which is appointed for after dinner. In practice, many families eat the holy supper after the service.

[6] Text taken from Антологія Української пісні Vol. 1: колядки і щедррівки, ed. Vasyl Zavitnevych (New York: Ukrainian Orthodox Church, 1967), 354. Translation mine.

[7] An anecdote about the popularity of this carol: in the Ukrainian parish tradition of my youth, it became customary to sing this carol at some time near the very beginning of the Liturgy, once the people had assembled, even though carols are customarily sung afterwards.

[8] Based on the text accompanying the musical setting by Kyrylo Stetsenko in Antolohia, ed. Zavitnevych, 354.


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Recommended Citation: Denysenko, Nicholas E. (2016) “A Meeting of Domestic and Liturgical Rites: Joy and Light in Orthodox Christmas,” The Yale ISM Review: Vol. 3: No. 1, Article 4. Available at  

PDF: a-meeting-of-domestic-and-liturgical-rites_denysenko

The Christmas Hearth

In 2001, while on a junior term abroad in Cork to study Anglo-Irish poetry, I learned that the actor Stephen Rea had recorded Derek Mahon’s recently published poem, “The Hudson Letter,” for broadcast on RTÉ Radio; and this is how I ended up spending the better part of that Christmas evening alone in the kitchen of an Irish stranger’s home, cozied up with a plate of warm food, a tumbler of whisky, and a radio.

My condition was not unlike that of the poet; I was an American student adrift among strangers in Ireland, listening to a (Northern) Irish poet writing from New York, a “resident alien on this shore.” The poem, in its eighteen parts, is a long letter home, though where or what exactly home is for either poem or poet, it is hard to say: one section is a reconciliatory letter to his adult daughter (“too busy growing up myself, I failed to watch you grow”—that was my father, too) and one to his son (“let me, Polonius of the twilight zone/ offer you some belated, functional succor”); another letter, to Fay Wray; homages to Ovid, Auden and Yeats; in some sections, the poet imagines others’ letters, assuming the voice of a young immigrant woman, Bridget Moore, writing home to Ireland from New York in 1895; finally, a devotional letter to his friend Patricia King, to whom the entire sequence is dedicated—it is a letter to the beloved, in the most Petrarchan sense:

I too sing, although she whom I admire

finds little to her taste in what I write.

I praise not only her clear skin and fine eyes

but also her frank speech and distinguished air; 

so dumbstruck am I on her visiting days 

I can find no words to speak of my desire

Yet, when she leaves me, my composure flees.

No one I know can hold a candle to her 

and when the world dims, as it does tonight, 

I see the house she goes to blaze with light.  

The italics of the last ten lines in this section, called “Domnei,” are the poet’s; for the reader, they may serve as a marker, suggesting a long exhalation and a hushed gasp on the final line, which is how I have read this section every time. In 2001 I read it, longing to identify with the object of that male devotion; now when I read it, I’m the speaker, and the passage evokes my love’s clear skin and fine eyes, my fleeing composure, in the early days of our courtship. Long exhalation and hushed gasp—that’s how Stephen Rea read it, too, as I huddled closer to the radio.

What did they think of me, my hosts? This stowaway in the kitchen. To my benefit, they didn’t seem to think too much about me at all—they simply let me be, Romanian-American flotsam that I was, and carried on with their Christmas family merrymaking. To be clear, they weren’t utter strangers; the muffled cheer on the other side of the kitchen door belonged to the immediate and extended family of a man named Gus, one of “the lads” I’d met (though, not one I knew very well) a few months back, when I arrived to study at University College Cork. The “lads,” five or six bachelors in their thirties, were regulars at The Thirsty Scholar (sadly, since renamed), above which another exchange student, Georgia, and I had briefly shared a room.

Hard-scrabble episodes, under the pressure of advancing decades, often become the stories we most love to tell (though, only if the scrabble eventually softens). Our room, which was split directly in half by a visible crack running uninterrupted up one wall, across the ceiling, and down the other wall, sagged on one side, and there was nothing but the filthy bloom of a balled-up bedsheet in the center of the mattress straddling the crack that surely ran across the floor, as well. However unappealing, it was free and temporary—a formula the impecunious know well. And, mercifully, pubs in Ireland close early; the crescendo of the bass below us broke by midnight, so we slept in our clothes, on layers of our clothes, under Georgia’s single, unzipped sleeping bag. (It was less than a month after 9/11, and the sleeping bag I’d asked to have sent from the United States was lost in transit.) Coming and going between the Thirsty and the college—I don’t remember if or where we bathed—in the three weeks before we found more permanent, separate arrangements, Georgia and I grew friendly with the lads, who in some way represented our reward for not ensconcing ourselves among our own. Here we were, among real Irish people, and—in a sentimental spirit that tempted me more than Georgia—in a pub during daylight hours. Wasn’t this the Irish writing life? The poet’s life? I hadn’t yet read Eavan Boland’s Object Lessons: “I know now,” she writes, “that I began writing in a country where the word woman and the word poet were almost magnetically opposed. One word was used to invoke collective nurture, the other to sketch out self-reflective individualism. Both states were necessary—that much the culture conceded—but they were oil and water and could not be mixed.”

My main trouble was that, while Georgia, an extroverted Australian (therefore, kin to the Irish not just in temperament, but likely also in DNA), kept pace easily with Irish banter and pints, I had no idea how to be among them. On the one hand, I had yet to learn that it was possible, indeed a good idea, to anchor new human relationships in curiosity and lightheartedness, rather than expecting the depths of life’s meaning to flower instantly, obviously, and perpetually, like a store-bought African violet. On the other hand, public drinking culture had never appealed to me (or, I didn’t appeal to it), and even Ireland wasn’t going to change that. I hoped desperately that there was some redeeming value in my painful and constant impulse to retreat into creative solitude (more accurately, solitariness)—painful, because I often lacked the will to assert my self-reflective individualism. This was at a time when, while not fully closeted, I wasn’t exactly out, either; I suspect I was having trouble just being, anyway.

What I still recall of Christmases of my late teens and early twenties: too much rich food and an accumulating nausea over the wasted paper, gift boxes, bows, ribbons, and the yardage of cellophane packaging. Also: one year, my mother cloaked herself for two weeks, including Christmas, inside an impenetrable shield of silence, composed so masterfully, that only I could hear it. At dinnertime with others, as if by sorcery, the shield dissolved; when company left, the shield went up again. She had learned, I know now, about a relationship I’d had with another woman. The silence had hurt, but the charade, the insistence on cheer, at the expense of grief, or joy—whatever real emotion could have been—distorted some part of my spirit. “Young poets are like children,” writes Eavan Boland. “They assume the dangers to themselves are those their elders identified; they internalize the menace without analyzing it.” Boland’s point here is about poets, but I have trouble getting past the blunt force of what she’s saying about children, and by children, I suppose I mean anyone with living parents. I don’t recall the specific reason for why I had booked my return flight back to the United States after Christmas—maybe I already knew about the airing of “The Hudson Letter” (this being before podcasts)–it’s easy to imagine that the unknown held more appeal than the risk of another such charade.

This might have been my first Christmas away from my immediate family, but it wasn’t the first (or last) spent in the bosom of strangers. My first Christmas in the United States was in 1988, six months after my parents split up. My second-grade public school teacher had found an apartment for my mother and me and had kept a key for herself, sometimes coming by when we weren’t home to stock the fridge and cupboards or to leave new school clothes on my bed. On that Christmas Eve, Mary took us out to dinner, while her husband lugged a tree up to our third-floor apartment, decorated it, and left it lit for our arrival. This I remember: Mary didn’t accompany us upstairs—she understood so well the privacy required for the completion of a gift, and how charity, if self-conscious, debases the receiver—and we stood transfixed and silent, the blinking tree filling the apartment with the smell and glow of home. No longer strangers, we continued to celebrate all holidays with Mary’s family for the next twenty-five years. It’s worth saying that she made the world beyond my world more hospitable. When she learned that one of her fourth graders was getting teased at school for being shabbily dressed, she arranged to get new clothes to his grandmother, so that he would not know his teacher had bought them. When a friend’s husband lost his job, Mary solicited her help in the garden, and the money she paid this friend carried her and her husband through that dry season.

In the final section of “The Hudson Letter,” having compiled the individual voices of the previous seventeen sections, Derek Mahon assumes a more prophetic, collective voice—humanity’s letter home from a noisy, irreverent modernity. Or maybe it’s a prayer to a powerful spirit, “be it Byzantium or the sphere/ all centre, no circumference,” when he pleads:

I’d say make all safe and harmonious in the end

did I not know the voyage is never done

for, even as we speak, somewhere a plane

gains altitude in the moon’s exilic glare

or a car slips into gear in a silent lane . . .

I think of the homeless, no rm. at the inn;

far off, the gaseous planet where they spin,

the starlit towers of Nineveh and Babylon,

the secret voice of nightingale and dolphin,

fish crowding the Verrazano Bridge; and see,

even in the icy heart of February,

crocus and primrose. When does the thaw begin?

We have been too long in the cold.—Take us in; take us in!

I’d been living in the Lake District, in the northwest of England, for four months when Mary’s cancer went from bad to worse; she died in the beginning of December, an hour before I touched down in New York on my way to see her.

When I returned, grief-stricken, to England a week later, several families in the little Cumbrian village that I didn’t yet know well enough to call home took turns in an unannounced vigil over my broken heart. I spent an entire day with a family I’d met once before at church, not long after I’d first arrived in England. The holidays had called from disparate ends of Scotland three out of four of their children, their babies, and a kindly nonagenarian who had once been stationed in Uganda with her husband, before the reign of Idi Amin. They were the grandparents of the Highland children. Invited for breakfast, I stayed on for lunch and dinner, unable to sever myself from the warmth of their bonds with each other. On Christmas Day I visited for a while with another family, then had dinner with the childless atheists (a designation they’d approve of), including a married lesbian couple that lived in the village. The kindest, most generous thing they all did, which Gus’s family had also done, was to give space to my alienation, space which had the grace-given capacity to contain and transform my alienation into . . . I don’t know what. I simply felt taken in.

That Irish family’s particulars have receded: after fifteen years, I might recognize Gus, but I no longer know the rest of their names or faces. (I can’t recall if there were children, if they were playing games or watching television in the other room. Was there, maybe, a small, black terrier?) But they made something like a hearth in me. Through the invitation, they built up the fire, then drew the flames in toward the heat’s center, letting the peat and wood burn low, glowing, throughout the night.

oana-marianOana Sanziana Marian is a Romanian-born American writer, photographer, and translator. She studied Anglo-Irish literature at Yale College (BA ’03), poetry at Johns Hopkins University (MA ’04) and is pursuing a Master of Divinity degree at Yale Divinity School and the Institute of Sacred Music. She has published translations, photographs, poems, features, interviews, and reviews with The Yale University Press, Words Without Borders, Guernica, Artforum, Iron Horse Literary Review, On Being, and others. She is an adjunct editor at The Yale Review and a Wurtele Gallery Teacher at the Yale Art Gallery. With the writer Prudence Peiffer, she ran a popular reading series in Brooklyn called The Folding Chair. 


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Recommended Citation: Marian, Oana Sanziana. (2016) “The Christmas Hearth,” The Yale ISM Review: Vol. 3: No. 1, Article 7. Available at: