(Originally posted in December 2009)
When the first star is spotted in the sky on the eve of Christmas, it is time to go in to have the last meal before the end of the pre-Nativity fast, also called St. Philip’s fast, or the Filippovka. This meal is called the Holy Supper. At the end of this article there are some pictures of common dishes eaten for Holy Supper.
Spotting that star used to be the job of our youngest daughter, but as she reached her teen years, we realized that she was not quite the reliable lookout that she had been, so these days we all try to be the first to spot the star, since we’re all pretty hungry.
The following is a description of the Holy Supper taken from a booklet given out to parishioners at our church; it is simply called The Holy Supper and does not contain any information on the author.
“The Holy Supper [Svyatyj Vecher’] on Christmas Eve occurs among the people of Central Europe as the immediate preparation to welcome the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ. While it varies in details from one group to another and, in fact, within groups and nations from one town and village to the next, there are certain common features.
“The origins of the Holy Supper predate the arrival of Christianity in Central Europe. Like many Christmas customs, it began as a pagan rite, in this case, called Korochun – the greeting of the Sun – as the days grow longer after the Winter Solstice. Certain elements, like the twelve courses to be served, reflect the twelve months of the year and, expressing hope for a bountiful harvest of food for the whole year, hearken to its origins as an agricultural ritual feast for blessings in the year to come. When Christianized, the twelve courses were seen to represent the Twelve Apostles. Likewise, the Paska-like bread in the center of the table called the Korochun, comes to be understood as the sign of Christ, the Bread of Life.
“…[I]t is suggested that we observe abstinence on Christmas Eve, that is, no meat products, but not restricting the use of dairy products. The meatless meal should be one of great abundance: meatless, to symbolize the humility and poverty in which Christ was born; the variety and abundance of food to remind us of God’s blessings and grace.
“The house is cleaned for the coming of the Messiah, and the dining room is specially prepared. The husband is to feed all the animals, whether the household pets or, if ones lives on a farm, the farm animals, with great abundance. Likewise, after the wife sprinkles the family with holy water during the Holy Supper to purify their minds that they may be open to accept the mystery of the divine birth, the husband is to bless the animals with the holy water. All this is done as a sign that the animals of the stable were the witnesses of the mystery of the birth of God in the flesh.
“A candle is placed in the window, a sign of welcome for the holy family and, indeed, for family, friends, and the poor or strangers who have nowhere to spend the night like the Holy Family had no place to stay at the inn at Bethelehem.
“The dining room table is set with a white table cloth, a symbol of purity of the Virgin birth and the white swaddling cloths. The husband will scatter straw over or under the table cloth, to symbolize the manger, and place hay under the table, to transform the dining room into the stable. The Nativity Bread, a round bread like the Paska, representing Christ, with a candle in the middle representing both the star and Christ who is the Light of the World, is placed in the center of the table. An extra full place setting, to remind one of the faithful departed of the family, and, at the same time, to serve as a prepared place for any who come in search of a meal, is set.
Wine glasses for the toast are set, and two small bowls of honey, one for the anointing and one for dipping the garlic, are set. The holy water the family had reserved from the previous Theophany – January 6 – is placed on the table."
I do not anoint my family with honey, because that is too sticky, but we do sprinkle holy water on all family members, human and furry. In our house we do not have all 12 dishes, but usually have something along the lines of the following:
Setting the table for Holy Supper
Christmas Eve Bread
Salmon with Hollandaise Sauce
Pierogi with Sour Cream
Cider or Wine
Table All Set
Freshly baked Christmas Eve Bread, though simple, is especially delicious. Here is the recipe we use:
Bread for Christmas Eve
1 package dry yeast
1/8 teaspoon salt
2 cups water, warm
6 cups flour
4 tablespoons salad oil
1/2 cup lukewarm water
1 tablespoon sugar
4 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon salt
Dissolve yeast in warm water with 1/8 teaspoon salt and 1 tablespoon sugar. Set in warm place to rise. Sift 6 cups flour in deep bowl, add 2 cups warm water, 4 tablespoons sugar, 1 teaspoon salt, 4 tablespoons salad oil. Add the yeast mixture to the flour mixture.
Knead well and set aside to rise. When double in bulk, punch down. Divide dough in two. Shape one part into round bread, cover and let stand 20 minutes. Punch down and reshape. Place in greased pan. Allow to rise until double in bulk. Bake at 350 degrees for 1 hour.
[Recipe from Epiphany's Seasons: Twenty-five Years of Parish Recipes, compiled by the Epiphany Ladies Guild.]
After Holy Supper, we rest for a while, then it's off to church, where we attend services and then share Christmas dishes with fellow parishioners. This lasts until about 1:30 or 2:00 in the morning.