Archive for February 2018

Russian Christmas Customs

February 25, 2018

GrandfatherFrostChristmas customs enjoyed in Russia have evolved in three phases.  These phases are Russia before Communism, Communist Russia, and Russia after the fall of Communism.

Old Russia  Christmas was a religious time before the Communists took over Russia.  The Russian Orthodox Church held services every day during the twelve days of Christmas.  Nearly everyone in the town and surrounding countryside attended the local church making the services standing room only.

Many people followed a form of Advent.  For thirty-nine days before Christmas they would abstain from eating certain foods like meat.  No food was eaten on Christmas Eve until the first star was seen in the sky.  Many a Christmas Eve found the children of the house peering out the window watching for that first star so the Christmas Eve feast could begin.

The Christmas Eve feast comprised of a twelve-course meal.  Fish was a staple of the meal instead of meat which they still abstained from eating.  The soup course most likely was borscht, a soup made with cabbage, onions, potatoes, beets, and carrots.  Two other popular dishes were kutyala, a rich, sweet porridge made of wheat berries, poppy seeds, and honey, and kissel, a mousse-like berry dessert.

Meat could be eaten on Christmas day.  Duck, ham, goose, pig, and other roast meats were the centerpiece of the Christmas dinner.  Other dishes included borscht, jellied sturgeon, blini (light buckwheat pancakes rolled with caviar and served with sour cream), pelmeni (mini-dumplings filled with beef and pork), and piroshke (savory, filled pastries).

Christmas trees were popular in the 1800s.  They were procured three days before Christmas and decorated with apples, tangerines, dolls made of dried fruit and candy, walnuts wrapped in gold foil, wooden ornaments, paper lanterns, and topped by a shining star.

Instead of Santa Claus, Grandfather Frost delivered toys door-to-door.  He did not go down chimneys.  He wore a red coat trimmed with white fur and had a long, snow-white, bushy beard.  Some children opened the gifts they received from Grandfather Frost on Christmas Eve; others waited until Christmas morning.

Communist Russia  When the Communists came into power, Christmas was replaced with a Festival of Winter.  They also changed from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar.  The Russian Orthodox Church, however, continued to use the Julian calendar.  The churches that were allowed by the Communist Party to stay open held Christmas services on January 6 and 7, the date of Christmas using the Julian calendar.  Churches would be decorated with Christmas trees, icons of saints, and colored lights.  Congregations would sing Christmas hymns, but elsewhere there was no Christmas.

Many Christmas traditions were transferred to New Year’s, and Grandfather Frost arrived on New Year’s Day.  Christmas trees were banned by the Communists; but because the people wanted to keep the tradition, Joseph Stalin, in 1935, lifted the ban calling them New Year’s trees.

Many people put up their New Year’s trees on December 31 and left them up until January 13, Old New Year’s Eve).  The trees were decorated with toys, little dolls, colored lights, garlands, and topped with the red star of the Soviets instead of the star of the Magi.

Grandfather Frost remained the gift giver, but he arrived on New Year’s Eve instead of Christmas or Christmas Eve.  Instead of a red robe he wore a blue one.  Instead of some of the more fun and frivolous gifts Grandfather Frost brought more practical gifts like clothing, shoes, and books though small toys did appear on occasion.

Grandfather Frost was also joined by Snegurochka, the Snow Maiden. The Snow Maiden also dressed in a blue robe or coat and knee-high boots.  They would be seen together in parades and many New Year’s events.

Post-Communist Russia  In 1991 with the arrival of Glasnost and Perestroika the Russian people were once again free to celebrate Christmas.  Russian Christians were once again able to worship without fear of persecution or death.

The big celebration still occurs on New Year’s Day with extravagant fireworks and organized games.  Grandfather Frost still delivers gifts on New Year’s Eve and is still accompanied by the Snow Maiden.  The big feast still includes such foods as borscht, blini, sturgeon, halibut, or herring, fresh fruits and vegetables (when available), bread, and sweets such as baba or kissel.

Without the fear of persecution many Russians are returning to church especially at Christmas and Easter.  Christmas services in Russian Orthodox Churches are well-known for their sacred music, and many who cannot make it to the services are able to watch them on Russian television.

Today’s Russian Christmas customs are still being developed.  Some are trying to bring back some of the old customs while others are creating new traditions.

Baba Romovaya cake recipe

Ingredients:
3 ea eggs
5 oz flour
5 oz sugar
–Icing:
5 oz cherry juice
2 tbsp rum
–Sauce:
4 tbsp rum
2 ea yolks
8 oz cream
1 tbsp starch

Method:
Beat up eggs with sugar with the mixer until there is foam. Stir in flour very gradually and make dough very quickly. Fill in the form half (the dough will rise twice) with dough very very carefully. Grease the form abundantly with butter and sprinkle with flour. Close all windows and doors to avoid draughts otherwise “baba” will catch a cold”. Put in a warm place, don’t move it. As soon as the dough rise up to the top, bake in the oven (180C) until it is golden. It is very important to keep the form of “baba” after baking. Put upside “baba” in the form down on the paper until it is cold. Don’t take it out of the form until it is cold. Mix rum with cherry juice in a large bowl and sink “baba” in this syrup. Beat up yolks with cream and starch, pour in rum. Put the mass on a “steam bath” (put a smaller pan with cream mass in a large pan with water) and bring to thickening. Pour the sauce over “Baba” before serving.

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Epiphany and the Three Kings

February 25, 2018

January 6 is Epiphany or Three Kings Day.  It is traditionally thought to be the day that the three kings arrived to give their gifts and worship to the baby Jesus.  But is that really the way it happened?

Let us look at the events as told in the Bible. 

We’ll start in the book of Matthew where we are told about the magi.  In chapter two we are told the wise men arrived in Jerusalem from the East.  They asked around for the whereabouts of the One who was born King of the Jews.  As you may suspect this caused an uproar in Jerusalem.  Herod the king was a very suspicious and paranoid king worried that everyone was trying to take his kingdom away from him. 

Herod knew Israel’s Holy Scriptures prophesied about this special Ruler so he called the priests and scribes who knew the scriptures best.  They told him the Baby was to be born in Bethlehem, a small town about five miles from Jerusalem.  Herod then interviewed the wise men.   He found they had been traveling about two years.  We surmise this from the age of the children he killed in Bethlehem

When Herod had all the information he wanted he sent the magi on to Bethlehem.  He wanted them to find the Baby, return to him, and tell him the location of the Baby.  He would then “worship” the Baby, meaning he would kill the Baby.

The wise men traveled on to Bethlehem and, following a star that led them on much of their journey, found the Baby and Mary, His mother, in the house they were staying in.  They gave their gifts to Jesus and worshiped Him. 

We are not told it they stayed in Bethlehem a few days or traveled back home the next day.  We are told that as they slept God told them in a dream to not return to Herod so they took another route back home.

I am sure Herod had many spies.  At least one of them would have told him that the magi left Bethlehem within twenty-four hours of their departure.  Herod was furious that the wise men would defy his order.  Then he sent his soldiers to Bethlehem to kill all baby boys two years old and under.  It would not have taken the soldiers long to cover the five miles to Bethlehem.

Now let us turn our attention to Mary, Joseph, and Jesus (Luke 2).  When Jesus was eight days old He was taken by his parents to the temple in Jerusalem to be circumcised.  After that they waited another thirty-three days.  At the end of the thirty-three days Mary and Joseph brought Jesus back to the temple in Jerusalem to offer a sacrifice for Mary’s purification. 

That is a total of forty-one days after Jesus was born in Bethlehem that He was found in Jerusalem.  If the wise men had already been to Bethlehem and left for home Herod would have known and would have been looking for newborn babies from Bethlehem, but He was not looking for Jesus at this time. 

Therefore, I believe that the wise men did not arrive in Jerusalem or Bethlehem until at least forty-one days and perhaps as long as two years after the birth of Jesus.  The wise men traveled many days to worship the baby Jesus.  They brought gifts. 

They are our examples.  It is not enough to give gifts, to think about Jesus only at Christmas time.  We need to worship Jesus and bring Him the only gift He really wants. Ourselves.

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