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Holy Supper: An "Almost-Forgotten" Tradition

One of the best ideas our pastor ever had was when he asked me to consider changing the format of our annual ECF Nativity party several years ago to include a pre-enactment of our traditional Slavic Holy Supper.  When we moms talked about it, I was shocked at how many families no longer hold this tradition!  Many of them had no idea which foods to serve, how to set the table, what the symbolic meaning of each dish was.  For many of our parish families, this tradition was lost.  So Father had a better idea.  "We have to invite their parents," he said; and so we did.  I sent invitations to all our ECF families and asked for volunteers to bring a dish.  We had a pretty intense sign up sheet, complete with instructions for each dish and worksheets for the children to review the symbols involved in the meal.  But who would make the pirohi?  Very few moms would volunteer to bring that dish.  So we made them ourselves!  

All the children were invited to our home a few days before the party and we had a lesson in making one of our most cherished traditional foods.  What fun!  The children (and their moms...and even Grandpa Drozdik!...see the picture!...) peeled, boiled, pinched and fried to their heart's content and we served their precious creations at our party.  They all went home inspired and armed with the skills they would need to recreate this dinner in their own homes.  More importantly, they felt the warmth and comfort that comes from preparing, and then sharing, a traditional meal together. As mothers, we take on the very important task of weaving all the aspects of our faith into the daily fabric of life in our domestic churches.  Every season, especially each holiday, should be filled with the warmth and joy of Christ.  The anticipation of His coming into the world should be no different. Some of the warmest memories that are ever made involve Christmas!  

Just as every family has its own dynamic relationship with Jesus, each one celebrates His arrival a bit differently, but there are some universal things we can do as a group to make the advent and Nativity the very best that it can be.  Whatever your tradition or background, there are ways to be sure that they center around Christ.  

Food, for example, is a powerful family tradition.  Sometimes just the smell of a certain cookie baking in the oven can perfectly signify a holiday, complete with emotions and memories and the feeling of just being perfect.  Without it, the holiday just would not be complete.  But what would happen if the one who always baked that particular treat was no longer able?  What if nobody else knew the recipe?

This is why we felt it so important to bring our Holy Supper tradition out of obscurity and back into the spotlight. Our family is Ruthenian, from the village of Osadne in Slovakia, and so my family's Christmas Eve table looks like the one I'm about to describe. Another Byzantine family may have a similar menu, and similar customs but they may notice a few variations in their particular traditions. For example, my husband's family is from a village about 30 minutes west of Osadne and although their dinner is quite similar to ours, there are a few little differences even among us! Even families from the same town may differ in their customs; its all okay!! The important elements will be there, all pointing to the newborn savior. Just to give you a glimpse, especially if your own family isn't used to this beautiful custom, let me show you how our family's Christmas Eve dinner looks:

When i was a child, we would arrive at my grandparents' house on Christmas Eve and immediately we children would be given the important task of gathering by the window in the sitting room to look for the very first star. When we found it, we would inform the grown-ups, and that was the signal that the meal could then begin. It amuses me now, as a mother myself, that our ancestors were so cunning, keeping the children out from underfoot in this way! The blessed candle, set in the center of the table to signify the appearance of the star of Bethlehem, could then be lit and my Grandfather would say the blessing and offer a toast in honor of both the past year and the coming one as well. The table was always simply adorned, being a fast day after all, spread with a white tablecloth to remind us of the swaddling clothes of the Baby Jesus. Every year my grandmother would point out that we had no straw, which was customary to reflect the holy stable where Christ was born. When she was only a baby, her father had accidentally lit the straw on fire one Christmas Eve and burned their little house down...she had a phobia about that ever since, so no straw for our family. The little fruits, nuts, and candy should have been hidden under the straw, instead of lying right out on the table, but of course, we still understood that these were to symbolize the gifts of the magi and we children weren't to touch them until after the supper had ended. A round loaf of bread, shaped just like the holy bread that is taken to church and offered for consecration, was then broken and passed around the table accompanied by a little tray of chopped garlic, signifying the bitterness of life, and a jar of honey, signifying its sweetness. As it was passed along, conversation would begin about the sweet and the bitter events that the family had endured over the past year. When this was done, the rest of the dishes were passed as well, all of them without meat or dairy, according to the fasting custom of the Church. Among these dishes were pirohi, filled with potato or cabbage, mashed peas, mashed red beans, sauerkraut and mushrooms (usually popinki that we had gathered from the woods ourselves during the previous fall), stewed prunes, boiled potatoes and some bobalki made of leftover dough, some of which was boiled like noodles with the pirohi, and some which were baked and tossed with honey and poppy seeds and a little bit of whiskey. We liked those. Then there was a dish that my grandmother told us about, but was always missing from our family table. It was a dish known as kutjia, made of boiled wheat or rice, with fruits and nuts and poppy seeds. This was served in her home as a child as well, but she associated the dish with sad memories of lost family members and the memory of it affected her so much that she always decided not to make it. My husband's family served fish at their Holy Supper while mine did not, and they were much less strict about the fasting regulations and served a cream sauce with their pirohi and butter as well. As I mentioned, each family keeps the tradition a bit differently.

I remember the superstitions that my grandparents held about the meal as well that may or may not be observed in every family. Nobody could leave the table after the candle was lit for fear they wouldn't be at the next meal; everyone had to try a small bite of every dish so that food would not be scarce in the coming year; and when the candle was blown out, by the youngest child,when supper had ended the smoke must go straight up. If it drifted toward a certain poor soul, he would not see the next Christmas! Imagine the anxiety!

The variations of the traditional Slavic Holy Supper must be endless by now, but the central theme, that of celebrating the coming of the Savior universally remains. The families in our ECF program were deeply inspired by our gathering and many told me that they intended to restore the custom in their own families. Many were eager to learn about the tradition who had never seen it before, and all were touched by the warmth generated by the simple act of sharing the meal, but even more so by the symbolic gestures that all pointed to the profound reason for the celebration...which is what Christmas is really all about.

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