Sister Valentyna Ryabushko, daughter of Ukrainian Charity, offers us the traditional way of celebrating Christmas in that country. We wish to express in this way our solidarity with the people of Ukraine and our wishes for peace.
The birth of Jesus that continues to change the world
Christmas – what do Ukrainians today associate with this holiday? When does the preparation begin and how long does it last? What is the difference between Ramadan and “Ukrainian Ramadan”? “Christ is born” or “Christ is being born”? How does Jesus continue to change the world?
Christmas without Jesus?
Ukrainians associate the cold winter months with vacations, a longer period of weekends, religious and family holiday traditions, gatherings with friends, gift giving, and sometimes trips to the mountains to ski or spend time in contact with nature. Christmas carols are intertwined with New Year greetings under the name of some animal from the Chinese calendar, horoscopes for the coming year accompany fortune-telling on the feast of St. Andrew or Barbara…. For many Ukrainians, Christmas vacations are a component or a central point of the winter vacation period. At the same time, strangely enough, the person of Jesus gradually disappears from the consciousness of Ukrainians in the midst of this festive enthusiasm. About a month before Christmas, the cities take on a festive look. Shop windows and streets are decorated with bright multicolored lights, at every step their attention is attracted by promotions and advertising discounts. A little later, Christmas trees are erected in the central squares of cities and even a contest is held to choose the best Christmas tree in the country. The main motifs of Christmas cards are winter landscapes, snowflakes, Christmas wreaths, bells tied with big red ribbons, Christmas trees with ornaments, Christmas toys, sleighs with presents, in the best case, images of Christmas carols with a star, Christmas plates or angels…. More and more often we hear in mutual greetings the wish for “season’s greetings”, “happy holidays”… and there is less and less room for the very essence of these holidays.
“From Roman to the Jordan…”
The witty (жартівливий/дотепний) term “Ukrainian Ramadan” is often part of the colloquial language of Ukrainians. The famous month of Ramadan in Islam falls in the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. It is a time of fasting, a time of thanksgiving to God for sending the Holy Book of the Quran to the Prophet Muhammad. Ramadan is also a time of prayer, spiritual elevation and focus on spiritual values. Islam in Ukraine is the second most widespread religion after Christianity. Thus, Christians “borrowed” the term from Ukrainian Muslims and gave it their own meaning in colloquial speech. Ukrainian “Ramadan” is not an official term or concept, but probably comes from the combination of two words: the masculine name “Roman” and the name of the river “Jordan”.
Ukrainian “Ramadan” is a calendar period lasting 50 days, which begins with the day of the commemoration of the martyr Roman and ends with the feast of the Epiphany or Baptism of Jesus Christ in the Jordan River. Popular sayings and songs rightly emphasize the large number of holidays that fall during this period. On these days the bearers of the most common Ukrainian names celebrate their onomastics (the day when a person celebrates his or her saint): Roman (November 18), Kateryna (November 24), Andrii (November 30), Mykolai (December 6), Anna (December 9), Hnaty/Ignatii (December 20), Maria (December 26), Stepana (December 27), Melania (December 31), Vasily (January 1). Every Ukrainian celebrates the name day in his own way. Most often, the person organizes a feast and offers gifts.
The liturgical calendar of Byzantine rite recalls important events in the life of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary in this period. Christmas is celebrated from the feast of the Presentation of the Mother of God to the Church (November 21). According to tradition, Mary’s parents, the righteous Joachim and Anna, were childless for many years. In their sincere prayers, they promised that when the Lord would give them the grace to become parents, they would give the child to the service of God. The Feast of the Presentation of the Mother of God in the temple commemorates the event in which Mary, a three-year-old girl, was brought by her parents to the temple in Jerusalem, where she was raised with other girls until the age of 15. Already Mary is called “the dwelling place of God”, “the Mother of God”, the “only blessed woman, who was announced by the prophet” and who will give to the world the Word of God. Christmas is celebrated on December 25. On the Sunday before Christmas the genealogy from the Gospel of Matthew is proclaimed. On the Sunday after Christmas, the Gospel passage about the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt is read. On the eve of Christmas the journey of Joseph with pregnant Mary to Bethlehem is remembered. On that day, during the Divine Services, we celebrate the birth of Jesus, which is presented in the books of the Old Testament prophets, the letters of the apostles and passages from the Gospels. When Jesus was eight days old, his parents circumcised the child as prescribed. The Feast of the Circumcision has its basis in the Gospel of Luke and is celebrated along with the New Year on January 1. Interestingly, the reading on this day reminds the faithful that Christ is a true man and the true Lord of the world, who is the head of every person’s life. Remembering the circumcision of Jesus prompts Christians at the beginning of the new year to “circumcise their hearts from sins and vices”, to free themselves from empty and deceitful ideas and strengthen their faith. True faith in Christ is not the fulfillment of a system of prescriptions, but walking in the presence of the Savior, knowing Him more deeply, friendship with Him and assimilation to Him.
How does Jesus continue to change the world?
During the Christmas season, Ukrainian Christians use two common greetings when they gather: “Christ is born” and “Christ is being born.” The response to both is “Praised be Christ.” The question often arises: which version of the greeting is more correct? It is a historical fact that Jesus was born in Bethlehem to Mary and Joseph some 2000 years ago. That is why Christians celebrate Christmas. On the other hand, some may use the expression “Christ is being born” in a broader spiritual context. For many believers, the Christmas holiday each year becomes an opportunity to rethink a particular historical event and its significance in their own present situation.
The true reason for the coming of the Son of God to earth is love. God in his love constantly seeks dialogue with his children. And even after the fall, he does not leave them alone, but in mercy he takes flesh, he becomes man in order to restore to man the lost dignity of the son of God.
St. Vincent de Paul is one of the mystics who not only reflected on God’s love for people, but also implemented it in his life and even changed the face of the Church. It was the event of the incarnation of Christ that helped the 17th century French priest to see Jesus in every poor and needy person. Vincent de Paul’s Jesus Christ was God who lives in the persons of the poor and continues to suffer with them. That is why Vincent directed all his activity toward the needy and to people living various situations of poverty. St. Vincent not only dedicated his life to the service on behalf of the poor, but he founded communities of lay people and consecrated persons to ensure constant attention to the needs of the poor in society.
In Vincentian spirituality, mercy is realized in two directions: in relationships with God and in relationships with others. Vincent formulated the following principle: “We are chosen by God as instruments of his immeasurable paternal mercy, which he wants to establish and spread in souls.” Love for the poor is not a feeling, an emotion, an altruistic philosophy or a humanistic ethic. The fact is that in every kind of injustice, in every kind of suffering, the face of God is hidden from men. It gives the impression that God is far away, he does not see that he does not care. When we, as Vincentians, show solidarity with the victims of unjust situations, when we extend a helping hand to the poor, it is at that moment that the hidden God becomes active and visible…. It is then that Jesus comes again into this world, is born again among us. Fighting alongside the needy for their redemption is the best way to confirm the reality of God’s presence among us. Caring for the needy from the point of view of the Gospel is the most eloquent way of announcing the Good News of Christ and opening paths for the future of the Church. St. Vincent encouraged active works of mercy because they restore the dignity of each person and make the Gospel effective. Only after a person’s most urgent needs have been met can we begin a conversation with them about Christ and the sacraments. The more attentive we are to our neighbor, the better prophets of mercy we will be in the modern world. Jesus, born 2000 years ago and present in today’s world, has no hands but ours to respond with creativity and courage to the diverse realities of poverty. Having opened our hearts to the Good News of the Savior’s birth, we will eventually reveal the eternal beauty of God’s mercy to ourselves and to our neighbor.
Sister Valentyna Ryabushko, D.C.