Compiled by Maryann Mawhinney
Presented here are three summaries of the history and tradition of Orthodox Holy Supper. This information was compiled from several sources and it serves to illustrate the variation in traditions and foods which reflects the different cultural and nationality backgrounds. The food lists may not be inclusive as present day American variances are not all included.
1. Christmas is rooted in the Russian Orthodox faith, around the Christmas Eve fast and meal. The fasts lasts until the evening worship service or the first star appears in the sky. The dinner that follows is called the Holy Meal, in which meat is not allowed. However, Kutya, a type of porridge, is the primary dish. Kutya is made of grains for hope and poppy seed for happiness and peace.
The Holy Supper is in honor is the Christ Child and includes a white table cloth symbolic of Christ’s swaddling, Hay for poverty, A white candle for “the Light of the World”, and a large loaf of bread, “pagach” for the “Bread of Life”.
The meal begins with the Lord’s Prayer, led by the father of the family. The Mother of the family blesses each person present with honey in the form of a cross on the forehead.
Following this, everyone partakes of the bread, dipping it first in honey and then in chopped garlic. Honey is symbolic of the sweetness of life, and garlic of the bitterness. The “Holy Supper” is then eaten . After dinner, no dishes are washed and the Christmas presents are opened. Then the family goes to Church, coming home between 2 and 3 am.
Traditionally, the “Holy Supper” consists of 12 different foods, symbolic of the 12 Apostles. Although there was also some variation in the foods from place to place and village to village, the following is a good summary of what is typically served.
1) Mushroom soup with zaprashka (or Sauerkraut soup)
2) Lenten bread(“pagach”)
3) Chopped garlic
5) Baked fish
6) Fresh Oranges, Figs and Dates
8) Kidney beans (cooked slowly all day) seasoned with shredded potatoes, lots of garlic, salt and pepper to taste
10) Parsley Potatoes (boiled new potatoes with chopped parsley and margarine)
11) Bobal’ki (small biscuits combined with sauerkraut or poppy seed with honey)
12) Red Wine
2. It is a Russian tradition to have a holy supper on Christmas Eve. Since Christmas is preceded by forty days of fasting, this Holy Supper is the last meal of the fast. The twelve fasting foods usually served are: barley, honey, stewed prunes, pierogi, sauerkraut, potatoes, lima beans, garlic, Lenten bread, mushroom soup and salt. The meal begins with the singing of the Christmas troparion (a hymn) and the lighting of a candle placed in the center of the table. The candle symbolizes the star of Bethlehem. The bread is then broken by the father of the house and given to everyone present. This symbolizes Christ at the Last Supper. The foods range from bitter to sweet to remind us of the bitterness of life before Christ was born and the sweetness of life which comes after His birth. The number 12 symbolizes the twelve apostles. When the meal is finished all attend the Christmas Eve vigil.
The Holy Supper usually takes place in the home with the Father leading the family in the prayer ritual. It begins with the youngest child reading the Nativity account from the gospel of St. Matthew 2:1-12. The Father then starts with an opening prayer asking God to bless the bread wine and food. He then breaks the bread and passes it out to all present.
Some Orthodox churches preserve this family tradition where parishioners bring their favorite Nativity Lenten food and share with all present. This family tradition began because it is in danger of being lost since families no longer live close together and few have the time to cook the necessary dishes. The priest who is the father of the church family performs the prayer ritual.
Priest: O Lord Jesus Christ our God, Who blessed the five loaves in the wilderness and with them You satisfied the five thousand, + bless this loaf, wine, and the food we are about to eat and multiply them in this city, and in all the world, and sanctify all the faithful who partake of them. For it is You, O Christ our God, Who bless and sanctify all things, and to You we ascribe glory, together with Your Father, Who is without beginning, and Your all-holy, and good, and life-creating Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages.
People: Amen. Honey is placed on the forehead with the words:
All: May we love one another as the bee loves honey The cup of wine in passed around for each to drink:
All: Unite us in Faith and Love Bread is broken and passed to all. It is then dipped into the honey and eaten:
All: Let us love one another Garlic is eaten-( not pealed but cracked with the teeth)
All: May God Spare us from all Evil Twelve Lenten foods are eaten without knives or pepper. Pepper symbolizes arguments and knives the cutting of friendship
Closing Prayer: Priest: May He who was born in a cavern and lay in a manger for our salvation Christ our true God, through the prayers of the Holy Theotokos, of the Holy Apostle and Evangelist Luke and of all the saints have mercy on and save us for He is good and loves mankind.
There are a few games which are played. While blindfolded prunes are speared with a fork. If two prunes are speared the single will get married, the married will become pregnant.
A candle is blown out gently. If the smoke rises straight up it means a year of good luck.
3. In the Russian Orthodox tradition, following 40 days of Nativity Lent, the birth of Christ is commemorated with a final Lenten feast. The placing of hay under the tablecloth is in memory of the manger in which the Holy Child was placed by His Mother at His birth. Completely Lenten, the supper consists of 7, 9 or 12 courses. A candle is lit and the head of the family leads in prayer. An extra place is always set — for Jesus, either in Spirit, or in the form of a traveler or stranger, for none are turned away on this day without a warm invitation to partake of this Holy Supper.
The supper begins with a spoonful of the traditional Kutya, a cooked wheat or barley kasha, sweetened with honey, poppy seeds and chopped nuts — for good fortune!
After supper, it is traditional for all to attend a Vesper Service, following which the choir may begin visiting homes to sing Christmas Carols.
Two may be chosen from each category — except soup.
APPETIZERS: lkra (caviar), Kutya, Pick-led Mushrooms, Piroshki (with mushroom or sauerkraut filling), Herring (with beet and onion slices), Baklazhan (eggplant caviar).
SOUPS: Mushroom, Barley, Fish (with dumplings), Borscht, Cabbage, Vegetable.
FISH DISHES: Baked Pike, Trout or other, Fried Filet of Sole or Bluefish, Fish in Aspic, Stuffed Carp, Fishcakes, Fried Smelts, Boiled Lobster.
VEGETABLE DISHES: Potato Pancakes, Boiled Potato (with dill), Baked Sauer-kraut, Baked Sliced Beets, Potato Salad (with beets), Cauliflower (with bread crumbs and margarine topping), Lenten Cabbage Rolls, Halushky, Pickled Baked Cabbage, “Malosolniyeh” Pickles (freshly dilled).
FRUIT & CAKE: Dried-fruit Compote, Cherry or Blueberry Vareniki, Poppy seed Cake or Roll. Nut Pudding, Apple Strudel, Kissel, Fruit Rolls.
BEVERAGES: Wine, Kvass, Russian Tea (served with preserves and lemon slices)