Orthodox Christians in the region are preparing for their Christmas observances.
The Very Rev. Protopresbyter Robert Buczak of Christ the Saviour Cathedral, 300 Garfield St. in Johnstown’s West End, will celebrate his first Christmas as pastor since returning to the church in October.
For worshippers who observe Orthodox Christmas, the holy day begins Monday.
A handful of churches in the region follow the Julian calendar.
Following the Julian calendar, which was introduced by Julius Caesar in 46 B.C., area Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas 13 days later than those who use the Gregorian, or new calendar, adopted in 1582.
Those who follow the Orthodox religion, whether they are Greek, Serbian or Russian Orthodox, declare that “Christ is born” and expect the response of “Glorify him” during their Christmas celebrations.
Buczak is familiar with Johnstown since he served at the cathedral as archdeacon from 1996 to 2004 under the direction of the late Metropolitan Nicholas Smisko.
Buczak assumed the duties of the Very Rev. Protopresbyter Frank Miloro, who retired in October as pastor, but remains as the diocese’s chancellor, a position he has held since 1990.
“Nothing changes in the way we celebrate Christmas except we will be singing the first Christmas Liturgy at 9 p.m. Christmas Eve instead of midnight,” Buczak said.
Clergy say the wonder of Christmas is more than human minds can comprehend and should be an experience of the heart.
On Christmas Eve, a traditional meal called the Holy Night Supper is shared by families after a day of fasting from dairy and meat products.
“In honor of the apostles, the meal features 12 foods and may include mushroom soup, cabbage and garlic and honey to represent the bitterness and sweetness of life,” Buczak said.
“And we always leave an empty chair at the dinner table to say that we have room for Jesus Christ in our lives.”
The Christmas story is retold by the head of the house, and special Christmas bread is broken and shared.
“We read from the Old Testament from the Book of Isaiah that says the virgin shall bring forth a son, Immanuel, which in Hebrew translates to ‘God with us,’ ” Buczak said.
In some homes, straw might be put under the table to represent the manger in a stable, and a white linen cloth covering the table is a reminder of the swaddling clothes of the savior.
According to Buczak, it is vital that old traditions are strictly adhered to. Traditions are important because they help participants to remember the Gospel account of the birth of Christ.
“Young people desire it in this ever-changing world,” Buczak said.
“With tradition, younger generations find a place of peace and serenity that is directly related to the church.”
Christmas Eve is not the only day of fasting to prepare parishioners for Christmas.
Minimally, Wednesdays and Fridays of the preceding 40 days in Advent are fast days.
“We ask that people fast to the best of their ability,” Buczak said.
“The fast is only broken on Christmas Eve only when the first star has appeared, which now during the winter probably is around 5 or 5:30 p.m.”
Meat and dairy foods are not eaten until Christmas Day, and the strict fast is broken by the reception of Holy Communion.
Bishop Gregory Tatsis has prepared a Christmas archpastoral letter, which will be read at each Christmas service of the American Carpatho-Russian Orthodox Diocese of the U.S.A.
He asks that everyone give thanks to almighty God, by whose grace people have been given the opportunity to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ.
“If we look around, we find hatred, mistrust, suffering, and the absence of peace and love in our neighborhood, city, country, and in fact the whole world,” he writes.
“Despite all the suffering, sorrow and injustice in our world, today joy and hope come to us once more. That’s why at this blessed time of the year, we look forward to the arrival of the new born king.”
Tatsis asks to let kindness come with every gift.
“Let compassion, forgiveness and love come with every greeting,” he said. “Let our hearts be filled with prayer, charity and reconciliation for one another.”
Tom Lavis covers Features for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter.com/Tom LavisTD.