Ethnic rituals enrich season - Catholic Courier

Ethnic rituals enrich season

Each year Father Dominic Mockevicius eagerly anticipates the Christmas Eve Mass at St. George Lithuanian Parish in Rochester, where parishioners will join the choir in singing Lithuanian hymns and congregate after Mass for a reunion.

Jeannie Raisbeck spends the week before Christmas shopping for five different types of fish, which she’ll serve on Christmas Eve for her Italian family’s traditional holiday meal.

At her Polish Christmas Eve dinner, Theresa Dec and her family pray together, exchange good wishes and share the oplatek, or bread of love, a thin wafer similar to a Communion host.

Their ancestors may have hailed from different regions of the globe, but these three individuals share at least one strong, common bond — their Catholic faith. Father Mockevicius is St. George’s pastor, Raisbeck belongs to St. John the Evangelist Parish in Greece and Dec is a parishioner of Auburn’s St. Hyacinth Parish. They represent just three of the dozens of cultures found within the Diocese of Rochester.

No matter how they choose to commemorate the holiday, Catholics of all cultures and ethnic backgrounds are celebrating the same thing on Christmas Day — the birth of Jesus.

History of Christmas

Historians and scholars aren’t exactly sure when Christians first began celebrating Christmas, but the first written record of the holiday is contained in Roman records dating back to the year 336, according to the New Dictionary of Sacramental Worship. Christians probably did not publicly commemorate Jesus’ birth until the fourth century because prior to that, Christians were still persecuted, said David Stosur, associate professor of systematic theology and liturgy at St. Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry in Pittsford.

Although there are no historical records listing the actual date of Jesus’ birth, the Roman records placed the holiday on Dec. 25. Scholars aren’t certain exactly why this particular date was chosen for the celebration of Christ’s birth, but they have two main theories, Stosur said.

“The popular story is that Christmas was the Christianized version of the Roman pagan feast of the natalis soils invicti, which means the unconquerable sun,” Stosur said. “That feast in the pagan tradition just had to do with the fact that the winter solstice had come, which means that the night was beginning to get shorter again and the day was becoming longer.”

The fact that the celebration of Christmas may have begun with a pagan festival does not diminish the holiday in any way, he added. The pagan festival celebrated the triumph of light over darkness, and Christians celebrate Jesus’ triumph over darkness when he came into the world.

According to the New Dictionary of Sacramental Worship, this melding of the pagan and Christian celebrations built on existing symbolism, since Jesus often was described as the “Sun of Righteousness.”

It’s not unusual for Christian devotional practices to stem from those of non-Christians, Stosur noted.

“Jesus adapted the prayers of Judaism when he celebrated the Last Supper,” he said.

The second theory as to why Christmas is Dec. 25 stems from the theological belief — inherited from Judaism — that the birth and death dates of significant religious figures are the same, according to the New Dictionary of Sacramental Worship. Early Christians put their own spin on this belief, believing individuals died and were conceived on the same date.

“There was in some places the idea that March 25 was the date of Jesus’ death. The notion that one would have died and been conceived on the same date would have placed the date of Jesus’ conception at March 25, so he would have been born nine months later (on Dec. 25),” Stosur said.

Cultural celebrations

Even after Christians began celebrating Christmas, it was still a number of years before the liturgical season of Advent developed, Stosur said. Preparation and repentance were key themes of this season, which was similar in tone to Lent.

Early Christian leaders may have hoped these themes would curb some of the wild festivities that often accompanied the popular celebration of natalis soils invicti, Stosur said. Early Christians also prepared themselves for Jesus’ second coming, since he had come into the world on Christmas once and could do it again, he added.

Advent is still widely recognized as a time of preparation and anticipation. Although Catholics today focus more on preparing than on repenting, Advent is still a common time for parishes to hold penance services and offer the sacrament of reconciliation, Stosur noted.

The last day of Advent — or Christmas Eve — used to be known as a day of fasting and abstinence, Father Mockevicius pointed out. Thus, traditional Christmas Eve dinners across many cultures include only meatless dishes. Lithuanians call this meal kucios, he said. A Polish Christmas Eve meal, or wigilia, also would not include meat, but would instead offer such dishes as boiled potatoes, pickled herring, perogi, mushroom soup and bread, Dec said.

Italians traditionally enjoy a Christmas Eve meal consisting mainly of seafood, said Raisbeck, who has fond childhood memories of her annual visit to a local fish mart with her mother. Although her mother passed away 10 years ago, Raisbeck has continued her mother’s tradition of preparing five different types of seafood — octopus, shrimp, smelt, calamari and whiting — each Christmas Eve. The next day, she prepares another big meal, but the Christmas Day fare usually includes meat and pasta, she said.

Italian Christmas-Eve dinners often include many different dishes served over the course of several hours, said Angie Colavito, a member of St. Lawrence Parish in Greece.

“You start out early, and you pace yourself. You have to space it out, otherwise you could never eat all that,” she said.

Vietnamese Catholics also usually enjoy a special Christmas Eve meal, although it’s not necessarily meatless, said Ha Nguyen, coordinator of the diocesan Asian Apostolate. A traditional meal includes chicken soup, turkey or pot roast, she said, but these days the highlight of the meal is a sweet Christmas pudding.

After enjoying their meals, Polish, Italian, Lithuanian and Vietnamese families often go together to midnight Mass or another Christmas Eve liturgy. At St. George and St. Hyacinth parishes, the choirs sing Lithuanian and Polish hymns, respectively. At Rochester’s St. Anthony of Padua Parish, which includes a large Vietnamese community, parishioners put on a nativity pageant before Mass, Nguyen said.

Nativity pageants are likewise important in the Mexican culture, said Carolina Osorio Gil, a member of Teatrotaller, a Spanish-language theater group based at Ithaca’s Cornell University. The group planned to present la pastorela, or shepherd’s play, at Ithaca’s St. Catherine of Siena Parish in early December. The play, which is performed entirely in Spanish, puts a comedic spin on the nativity story when a hungry wolf shows up at the stable ready to eat the Lamb of God, which he thinks is an actual lamb, Osorio said.

Another popular Mexican tradition is las posadas, nine days of parties and candlelight processions that re-enact the holy family’s attempt to find lodging in Bethlehem. Puerto Ricans enjoy a pre-Christmas holiday tradition called parrandas, said Raquel Rodriguez, secretary at Rochester’s St. Michael Parish. This involves groups of people going door-to-door to serenade neighbors with Christmas carols and guitar music, she said.

There are no Christmas traditions specifically associated with the African-American culture, noted Father Michael Upson, coordinator of the diocesan Office of Black Ministry, but many African-Americans do celebrate Kwanzaa. Kwanzaa, which begins the day after Christmas, is a seven-day celebration of African culture during which participants light candles, recite prayers, sing songs and exchange gifts.

Many cultures also celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany, or Three Kings Day, which is Jan. 6. A popular custom in both Lithuanian and Latino cultures involves hiding a trinket inside a baked good, so “if you got it, it was like getting a gift from the three kings,” Father Mockevicius said.

According to traditional Polish culture, a parish priest often would visit Polish households after the Feast of the Epiphany and write the initials “KMB” over the doorway, Dec said. These letters stood for Kaspar (known as Gaspar in other cultures) Melchior and Balthazar — or the Magi — and this practice was thought to spare the home’s occupants from misfortune, she said.

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