For hundreds of millions of people around the world, Christmas is one of the most important holidays of the year. While those in the US and Western Europe celebrate the birth of Christ on December 25th, over a hundred million Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas on January 7th. Today, let’s take a closer look at unique Orthodox Christmas traditions around the world. Many countries – including Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Egypt, Ethiopia, Macedonia, Serbia, Montenegro, Georgia, Moldova and Kazakhstan – observe Christmas according to the Julian calendar which is 13 days behind the Gregorian. Even though all these countries are Orthodox and share a common thread in their Christmas celebrations, there are also many varied traditions from country to country.
Christmas in Russia
In Russia, which has the largest Orthodox Christian community in the world, Christmas and New Year are usually combined into a long winter celebration. This is usually observed from December 31st through January 10th. In Soviet times, when religious festivals were banned, New Year’s gained popularity and became the main winter holiday. To this day, people celebrate with much more pomp than Christmas which is usually a quiet family observance. There’s no such thing as Christmas gifts in Russia, since all the gifts are exchanged on New Year’s Day. Grandfather Frost, the Russian equivalent of Santa Claus, brings gifts for children on the morning of January 1st.
That said, Russians start celebrating Christmas on Christmas Eve. Before going to midnight service they share a holiday dinner that traditionally consists of 12 dishes, representing the 12 apostles. The meal typically includes all types of traditional Russian food like beetroot soup (borsch), meat dumplings (pelmeni), sauerkraut, various salads, meat dishes, and more.
In some towns, children dress up in beautiful folk costumes and go caroling at neighbors’ and friends’ houses to wish them a happy new year. Similar to Halloween trick-or-treating, kids are usually rewarded with money, cookies and sweets.
Another unique way to bring a bit of Russian tradition into your family is fortune telling. Russian culture is full of ancient folk festivals, magical rites, and customs; fortune-telling is one of them. Even though this authentic Christmas tradition is rooted in pagan times, it is still practiced as part of the holiday fun.
Fortune telling is usually done by young girls who want to know the name of their future husband, the day of the marriage, and how many children they will have. There are many ways to predict the future, but the method using mirrors and a candle is one of the most popular. At midnight you should sit down in front of the mirror wearing comfortable clothes like a nightgown or pajamas and have your hair loose. Two additional mirrors on the side should create an endless tunnel inside. Then you turn off the light and put a lit candle in front of the mirror. Keep looking at the reflection in the mirror saying: “My future husband, come to me to have dinner” until you see somebody inside. It can be either a silhouette of a person or a man with distinctive features, but the moment you see your future husband say “Get lost!” and the image will disappear.
The time from January, 6 (Christmas Eve) until January, 19 (Russian Orthodox Epiphany) is considered the best to predict future. Predictions done during this time are considered the most accurate. Although it’s a lot of fun, fortune telling can be quite spooky and it was not uncommon for young girls to report losing consciousness during the process back in the day.
Christmas in Ukraine and Christmas in Belarus are very similar to Russian Orthodox Christmas with supper on Holy Night featuring 12 dishes, joyful caroling and fortune telling being the most important parts of the celebration.
Christmas in Egypt
Even though the Christian population in Egypt makes up only 15% of the total population, Christmas in Egypt is observed like any other major holiday. Similar to the US, the festival has become very commercialized. Bright Christmas trees and decorations are available at all local stores and even non-Christian Egyptians give in to the shiny tradition.
Christians in Egypt celebrate the days until Christmas by fasting for 43 days. This is a time to demonstrate devotion and promote self-control, so people do not consume any animal products or dairy. The long fast is broken only on Christmas Eve with a special bread called “qurban” (which means sacrifice). This bread has a Holy Cross in the center and 12 dots representing the Apostles.
After the church service, people go home and enjoy a hearty meal that includes everything they were not allowed to eat during the fast. A lamb soup with rice called “Fatta” is traditional Christmas food for Egyptians. Famous Eid cookies called Kahk are another holiday staple and a popular Christmas gift in Egypt. Waiting for the arrival of Santa, called Baba Noel, children leave him some Kahk biscuits. In return, he brings them new clothes and toys. In the morning, people visit friends and neighbors, exchange Kahk and other Christmas gifts in Egypt.
Add an authentic touch to your Christmas celebration by making these delicious and easy-to-make Egyptian shortbread cookies.
Kahk Cookies Recipe
These delicious cookies are staples in Egypt for Christmas. Enjoy!
Prep Time:10 minutes
Cook time:25 minutes
Yield: 35 cookies
- 2/3 Cups Unsalted Butter or Ghee
- 1/2 Cup Vegetable Oil
- 5 1/2 Cups All purpose flour
- 1 1/2 Teaspoons Instant Yeast
- 1 Teaspoon Sugar
- 1/2 Teaspoon Cinnamon (optional)
- 1/8 Teaspoon Salt
- 2/3 Cup lukewarm water (150 ml)
- Powdered Sugar to taste.
- Melt butter and mix with vegetable oil in a bowl.
- In a separate large bowl, add the flour, cinnamon, salt and mix leaving a well in the center.
- Combine water, yeast, sugar and leave for 10-15 min for yeast to activate.
- To the well created previously, add in the yeast mixture and the butter mixture. Thoroughly combine.
- Knead the dough until smooth. Allow to rest for an hour.
- Preheat your oven to 320 F (160 C) degrees.
- Shape the dough into ping pong size balls and slightly flatten them out.
- Place the balls onto the parchment paper lined cookie sheet and make small holes with a fork.
- Bake in preheated oven for 15 mins then increase the temperature to 400 F (200C) degrees and cook for additional 5-10 mins or until golden brown at the top.
- Place on baking rack to cool and sprinkle with powdered sugar just before serving.
- Store in a tin to keep fresh longer.
Orthodox Christmas traditions in Georgia
Since the vast majority of the population in Georgia is Orthodox Christian, Christmas is one of the most important holidays of the year. Like all the other major Orthodox countries, Georgia celebrates Christmas on January 7th according to the Julian calendar.
Even though the way Georgian people observe Christmas is very similar to other Orthodox traditions, they have their own unique customs. On this day, large processions called Alilo make their way through all cities big and small. Dressed in traditional Georgian clothes or costumes, men, women and children of all ages participate in these mass walks. The overall mood is very joyous. People carry banners and flags, sing beautiful Christmas carols, give away sweets to kids, and collect money for charity.
Do you think Christmas trees are the same everywhere in the world? Wrong! Georgian Christmas trees are called Chichilaki and are made from long curly strands of dried wood that look like a long, white beard. Decorated with red berries and dried fruits as a symbol of a bountiful harvest and hope for better future, Chichilaki also represents the tree of life, a symbol of faith for Georgians. Since they are made from pruned branches, Chichilaki are considered more environment-friendly than cutting pine trees.
The Georgian Santa Claus is also different from the one we know. Called Tovlis Papa, he doesn’t have a reindeer or sled, but comes down from the Caucasus mountains and walks around the country to deliver Christmas gifts in Georgia to all the children.
Christmas in Georgia is a day for celebration, delicious food, family, and friends. It is also filled with beautiful Georgian traditions and music. Candlelit church ceremonies, solemn music, and an entire country coming together for the Alilo processions make Christmas in Georgia a beautiful and unique celebration.
Christmas in Serbia
Christmas in Serbia is an authentic three-day celebration full of religious traditions and customs. The oak tree branch with golden leaves called badnjak is a crucial ingredient of a proper Serbian Christmas. A custom rooted in old pagan tradition, it is still observed today. On the morning on Christmas Eve, people who live in the countryside go to the woods searching for a badnjak. In the cities, these branches are sold on the streets or in markets.
Later that day, people scatter straw on the floor of their homes to resemble the stable where Jesus was born and burn oak branches. It symbolizes the fire that the shepherds brought to warm baby Jesus and now it warms the family with love and harmony. A huge fire is also lit near the church after Christmas mass at midnight. Everyone is expected to bring an oak branch and throw it into the fire. It’s a good sign if the fire has many sparkles since they are believed to bring good fortune in the upcoming year.
Another popular tradition is eating cesnica, a special Christmas bread with a lucky coin inside. Before Christmas lunch, the family breaks the bread into pieces and whoever gets the piece with the coin will have good luck in the following year. The rich meaty meal featuring pies, cakes, cabbage stuffed with meat and rice, roasted pork, and other authentic dishes follow the coin searching ritual.
Serbs believe that whatever a person does on Christmas, they will continue doing throughout the year. This is why people try to have fun and spend the day doing the things they love best. Sending Christmas gifts to Serbia is a great way of spending the holiday since it will ensure your recipient’s upcoming year is full of surprises and joy.
Christmas in Ethiopia
Just like in Egypt, Christmas in Ethiopia starts 43 days earlier with a special Advent fast during which people are restricted from eating all animal products including eggs, dairy and seafood.
One of the oldest nations in Africa, Ethiopia follows the ancient Julian calendar and celebrates Christmas on January 7th. Called Ganna in Ethiopia, Christmas is the time to spend with family and go to church. When visiting a mass, people dress in white. You can see a lot of people wearing traditional white cotton mantles with brightly colored stripes across the ends on this day.
Traditional Christmas foods in Ethiopia include ‘wat’, a spicy flavorful meat stew with vegetables. It is served with authentic pancake-like flatbread called injera which is used in place of utensils to scoop the wat into the mouth.
Want to add some Ethiopian flavor to your Orthodox Christmas celebration? What a great idea! Surprise your family with this simple recipe for wat, one of the most famous of all African dishes.
Ethiopian Wat Recipe
This hearty stew from Ethiopia will add a lot of flavor to your Orthodox Christmas celebration
Prep Time:15 minutes
Cook time:45 minutes
Yield: 4 servings
- 1 Medium Onion, diced
- 1 Green bell pepper, chopped
- 2 Tablespoons Tomato paste
- 1 Clove Garlic, finely minced
- 1 Tablespoon Ginger, finely minced
- 2 Tablespoons Olive oil or butter
- 1/2 Cup Water
- 3-4 Hard Boiled Eggs, peeled
- 2 Tablespoons Dried cilantro (or 1/4 Cup fresh cilantro, chopped)
- Salt to taste
- 2 Tablespoons Berbere (Berbere is a spicy blend of cumin, cardamom, allspice, fenugreek, coriander, cloves, black pepper, cayenne pepper, ginger root, turmeric, paprika and cinnamon. You can mix and match any of these spices separately depending on what you have on hand at home or substitute with curry powder).
- Sauté onion until translucent.
- Add chicken, 2 tablespoons of the Berbere, bell pepper, ginger and garlic.
- Coat chicken well, add tomato paste, water and stir well.
- Simmer on medium heat for 35-45 minutes.
- Add cilantro and adjust seasoning to taste.
- Remove the pan from the heat and add the eggs, turning to coat them in the sauce. Cover the pan and let sit for 5 minutes.
- Enjoy over rice, flat bread or Naan.
One of the most joyous holidays of the year Orthodox Christmas is full of unique traditions and authentic flavors. Add a cultural twist to this year’s celebration by bringing a piece of foreign traditions into your own home.
It’s almost time to celebrate Christmas again. Are you ready?
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