Orthodox celebrate Christmas

Away from buying frenzy, holiday seems less rushed

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Typically when they celebrate Christmas Eve, members of St. Sava Serbian Orthodox Church in McKeesport gather outdoors for a traditional blessing of a yule log.

This year, due to the extreme cold, they held most of the ceremony indoors in the fellowship hall -- as golden-robed altar servers brought in an oak branch with browned leaves -- a symbol of hope in rebirth amid the dark of winter. Only the last part of the ceremony -- the burning of the yule log -- took place in a fire pit outdoors.

But there was plenty of warmth indoors, physically and spiritually.

"Christ is born!" said the Very Rev. Stevan Rocknage of St. Sava.

"Indeed he is born!" the worshippers crowded into the hall replied, and then they repeated the phrases in the liturgical language of Church Slavonic: "Mir Bozi, Hristos se rodi!" "Vaistinu se rodi!"

"Let's get this show on the road," Rev. Rocknage said, beginning the evening's liturgies.

While many Orthodox celebrate Christmas at the same time as Roman Catholic and Protestant churches, some of the Orthodox churches with Slavic roots continue to follow the ancient Julian calendar, according to which today is Christmas Day.

At St. Sava, the priests and the small but energetic choir alternated with chants and hymns, some in English and others in the liturgical language of Church Slavonic, which is related to Serbian. Leaders blessed wheat, walnuts and coins -- auspicious symbols that were scattered among straw on the floor for children to pick up.

Mary Magdic said before the service that she loves the annual Christmas gatherings. "You don't get this everywhere," she said, pointing to the crowded room brimming with conversation and anticipation.

Gary Trbovich agreed. "It's a family," he said of the congregation. "It doesn't get any better than this."

The blessing of the yule log, known as the "badnjak" in Serbian, is a Christianized version of an ancient pagan custom symbolizing death and rebirth, Rev. Rocknage said. It's a way of showing "Christ is the God of life," he said.

Steve Kracinovsky, president of the congregation, said that while many members are in religiously mixed families and exchange gifts on the Western Christmas, they're able to focus on the spiritual aspects of the holiday by marking the Nativity separately.

"There's no rushing," he said. "All the gift-giving is over."

From the eve of Christmas on Monday through 12 days to the festival of Epiphany, which marks the visit of the Wise Men to the baby Jesus in Bethlehem, "we celebrate and try constantly to remind ourselves through our actions, this is why we're celebrating," Rev. Rocknage added.

After the yule log blessing, parishioners went upstairs to the sanctuary for Christmas Eve liturgy, beginning with a familiar tune, "Silent Night," in English and Church Slavonic. They also gather for liturgy on Christmas Day.

Rev. Rocknage said he sees parishioners seeking comfort and peace in spiritual things during times of economic and other struggles.

"What a wonderful thing for the birth of our Lord to come, because the world is in such turmoil," he said. "People are flocking to our parish just to get away from the craziness out there."

And he said it's inspiring people to do something about that craziness. At a recent youth group meeting, for example, he said the young people resolved to bring gift packages to nursing homes and visit an Orthodox monastery to help spruce it up.

Similar observances are underway at Holy Trinity Serbian Orthodox Cathedral in Whitehall.

The weather may not have been ideal for an outdoor ceremony, but "you just have to do what you have to do," said the Very Rev. Rajko Kosic, parish priest at the cathedral.

"Even though Easter is the biggest holy day of all, Christmas is more joyous. When a child is born, everybody is happy," he said.

Peter Smith: petersmith@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1416; Twitter @PG_PeterSmith.

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