Rich traditions are followed in Orthodox Christmas celebration

Author: Jeff Horvath
Date Published: 01/07/2016
Matthew Romanchak of Pittsburgh gives a reading during the Great Compline with Matins Service in St. John's Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Mayfield, Pa., on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2016. (Jake Danna Stevens/The Times-Tribune via AP) WILKES BARRE TIMES-LEADER OUT; MANDATORY CREDIT
Matthew Romanchak of Pittsburgh gives a reading during the Great Compline with Matins Service in St. John's Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Mayfield, Pa., on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2016. (Jake Danna Stevens/The Times-Tribune via AP) WILKES BARRE TIMES-LEADER OUT; MANDATORY CREDIT

Thirty people sat around a family table on a cold Christmas Eve in January, holding their spoons.

Under the table was a bed of hay, a symbol of the Christmas manger. Soon, the first dishes of a holiday feast — pierogie, sauerkraut, beet soup — would begin to circulate around it.

The grandmother handed the first course to her husband as nearly 30 pairs of eyes, including those of a young Frank Goryl, looked down the table to the family’s patriarch, who took a bite and passed the dish to his right.

That night, holy supper was eaten from common bowls.

Decades later this is how Mr. Goryl, who started the annual “Russian Christmas in Moscow (Pennsylvania)” five years ago, remembers his boyhood Orthodox Christmas.

Mr. Goryl has seized on that same spirit in recent years by giving out bowls of borscht, an Eastern-European beet soup, during Russian Christmas in Moscow, where businesses along or near Main Street, as well as residents and visitors, celebrate Orthodox Christmas with art, music and ethnic food. The event takes place tonight, Julian calendar Christmas Day, from 5 to 8 p.m.

Many others of the Orthodox Christian faith cherish Christmas memories similar to Mr. Goryl’s. The holiday is a celebration of tradition, family, food and faith — and the ways in which they intertwine.

“Everyone wants to be in touch with their roots,” said the Very Rev. John Sorochka, Mitred Archpriest of St. John’s Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Mayfield. “It gives us a sense of belonging … a sense of home.”

Like Mr. Goryl, the Very Rev. Sorochka also remembers eating holy supper out of common bowls. While this practice isn’t universal among Orthodox denominations, many of the dishes served on Orthodox Christmas Eve have a place in various old-country cultures.

In the religious sense, holy supper, which often consists of 12 courses that symbolize the 12 apostles, represents that end of advent: 40 days of fasting in anticipation of Christ’s birth.

Traditional dishes such as pierogie, braided bread, baked balls of dough called bobalki, sauerkraut, mushroom or pea soup, prunes and a sweet grain pudding called kutya, and ingredients such as garlic, poppy seed and honey, are often staples of the meal. The exact dishes vary from home to home.

Food is a reflection of where a family came from. Gene and Sonia Maslar, who are of the Ukrainian Catholic faith, enjoyed their 12-dish, Christmas Eve holy supper, complete with pierogie, bobalki and kutya, on Dec. 24.

“What village your ancestors came from, and what they did, determined what you ate,” said Mr. Maslar. “If your family were farmers, you ate grain, and if they lived on the river, you ate fish.”

And just as what’s on the table differs from family to family, so to do the customs of those seated around it.

“In my family, the mother of the house would dip her finger in honey and make the sign of the cross on everyone’s forehead, symbolizing the sweetness of nature,” the Rev. Sorochka said.

A matriarch in Mr. Goryl’s house also played a significant role in the Christmas celebration.

“My grandmother was the only one who was allowed to get up from the table (during holy supper) because everyone was there through her,” he said. “After dinner, we would all kiss my grandmother on the cheek, and we’ve passed that on through my family.”

The Maslars have a tradition of their own, as the barley used in their kutya has been purchased from the same New York City Ukrainian shop — Surma — since the early ’90s.

Ultimately, old-country Christmas traditions represent a bridge to the past by which people in Northeast Pennsylvania and all over the world can connect with their ancestors, be they from Russia or Poland, Hungary or Ukraine, or anywhere in between.

“We live in an amalgamated society, but there’s a part of all of us that remembers our grandparents and wants to embrace our past,” Mr. Goryl said. “It’s why, on a bitter cold night, people will still come to your house to have a bowl of borscht.”

Contact the writer:

jhorvath@timesshamrock.com,

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