For Many Orthodox, Christmas Is Just Beginning

You have packed up those Christmas decorations, but for many Orthodox Christians, the celebrations are just getting started. Guest host Celeste Headlee speaks with Father Daniel Habib, a Coptic Christian priest, about why many Orthodox churches observe Christmas on January 7th.

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CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:

I'm Celeste Headlee, in for Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Coming up: We asked you to tweet your ideas on how to bring peace into your life in 2013. We'll hear some of those responses in just a few minutes.

But, first, it's time for Faith Matters. That's the part of the program when we talk about issues of faith, religion and spirituality. Today, we want to talk about Christmas. That's right, Christmas.

Some of you may be already packing up your decorations, but many Orthodox Christians are just getting ready for their Christmas celebration. That's because many Orthodox churches follow a different calendar, the Julian calendar, and for them, Christmas falls on January 7th.

Joining us to explain more is Father Daniel Habib. He's a priest at St. John Coptic Orthodox Church in Covina, California. Welcome and Merry Christmas, almost, to you and your family.

DANIEL HABIB: Thank you. To you, too.

HEADLEE: So there are many different kinds of Orthodox Christian churches. Not all of them choose to celebrate Christmas in January. Who does, though?

HABIB: Well, we are termed as the old calendar Orthodox churches who, you know, stick with the original date that was set way back when in the fourth century or so. And in the 20th century, some of the Orthodox churches decided to switch over to the Gregorian calendar - excuse me - and have decided to celebrate on December 25th. But, for the most part, a good majority of us - especially in the Oriental Orthodox Church family - celebrate on January 7th.

HEADLEE: You're distinguishing between Oriental and Greek, which aren't necessarily descriptive of the place in the world where those churches are.

HABIB: Correct. Excuse me. Sorry. It's not just Greek. It's also Russian and Serbia. There's a whole family called the Eastern Orthodox.

HEADLEE: Right. But you're an ordained priest in the Coptic Orthodox Church, and that's the church that started in Egypt. You know, in the U.S., holiday parties are - kind of go with the holiday. Right? Huge amounts of food. But in Coptic Orthodox Christian celebrations, you fast for 40 days before Christmas. Tell me about the fast and what the spiritual purpose is of it.

HABIB: So, in the Orthodox Church, it's all about preparation and celebration. In order to prepare yourself properly for a celebration, you have to condition yourself for a period of time. And it's always been a deep teaching of the Coptic Orthodox Church and other Orthodox churches that one must fast for a period of time in order to, so to speak, release the spirit. The idea is that you don't give the comfort to the body so that the spirit can thrive. And we do that for 40 days, quite similar to an Old Testament story of Moses on the mountain of Sinai waiting 40 days to receive the law from the finger of God. That's how we approach this feast, preparing ourselves for the coming of Christ.

HEADLEE: It's not a complete fast, right? You don't go completely without food for 40 days.

HABIB: For the most part, it's a vegan fast, with an allowance of fish on certain days.

HEADLEE: Do many Orthodox Christians also do some kind of celebration on the 25th, or do they ignore that date completely?

HABIB: In fact, having grown up here in America, we love the idea of having two Christmases. On December 25th, we spend our day with our family, open gifts and generally enjoy the holiday. On January 7th, we spend our time in church and focus more on the spiritual aspect of Christmas.

HEADLEE: Your celebrations begin the night of the sixth, which would be the Christmas Eve, I guess, for Orthodox Christians.

HABIB: Yeah.

HEADLEE: And, in addition to the fasting, there's also - I'm fascinated by the amount of singing and music that's involved. I want to take a quick listen here to a traditional Christmas hymn in the Orthodox faith.

(SOUNDBITE OF MAN CHANTING)

HEADLEE: So the amount of singing, the role of liturgy and hymns in the Orthodox Christmas celebrations, what role does the music play?

HABIB: Everything is chanted. There's only two things that generally aren't chanted. That's the recitation of the Creed and the "Our Father," the Lord's Prayer. Everything else is chanted for a couple of reasons. The chanting makes it easy for people to remember the words, which are most important. But also, chanting expresses something that can't be just expressed in spoken word. If it could be expressed in spoken word, it would be expressed in spoken word. There's a deeper aspect between spoken word and just chanting, and so we keep that within our tradition, that chanting.

HEADLEE: If you're just joining us, we're talking about how many Orthodox Christian churches celebrate Christmas on January 7th, coming up. Our guest is Father Daniel Habib, a Coptic Christian priest.

And, going back to the music, I've heard that in Cairo, the singing actually goes on all night long, and it's an amazing experience. Can you describe what that Christmas Eve night is like on the night of January 6th?

HABIB: It begins with what we call Evening Raising of Incense. There is a Midnight Psalmody, and the Midnight Psalmody is three hours of chanting, remembering stories of salvation from the Old Testament, as well as from the New Testament. It climaxes with the partaking of the Eucharist at the end. And so through this whole series of hymns and readings from scripture, a person is brought from the level of, you know, kind of coming in from outside and reaching this height of happiness and joy in the church, as if it was a heavenly joy. It's definitely a journey, all around journey from the beginning of Advent till Christmas, and a journey in the actual celebration of the liturgy itself.

HEADLEE: And then, of course, you finally get to break your fast after 40 days. Tell me about the Christmas feast. It takes a few hours later, in the middle of the night. What's the typical menu for an Orthodox Christmas feast?

HABIB: Well, it's exciting. You know, the kids and usually the people at home, our wives and our mothers are cooking or getting ready before church starts. So you're already salivating over what you're going to eat, but it's usually kafta and kabob. There is a dish called feta, which is kind of light on the stomach after fasting for so long. There's a macaroni in meat sauce, and it's called macaroni bechamel. And then there's grape leaves, and you could have the traditional turkey, as well, if people want to go the American route. But for the most part, there's nothing short of meat, meat and more meat.

HEADLEE: You know, I wonder how this plays with the younger generations, Father Habib. You have a lot of young people in your church, in the youth program. This kind of long, drawn-out ritualistic faith, how does that appeal to younger people?

HABIB: You have, in the church, a variety of young people, those who enjoy and accept it, but for those who are still learning the ways of the Orthodox Church, we give certain allowances, teaching them from a young age, instead of fasting 40 days, maybe fasting a week, maybe fasting a week with dairy. And we slowly build them up until they can appreciate it, because all the practices of the church are meant for the individual. They're not meant necessarily for appeasing God in some way, shape or form.

God, you know, to be blunt, God doesn't need our fasting. We need our fasting. So the church tries to handle it delicately, so that the children aren't turned off from a young age. Their parents will be told, come a little bit later to church so that the children don't get too restless, but definitely do bring them to church for a portion.

HEADLEE: But you, at this point, have been fasting now for weeks, right?

HABIB: Right.

HEADLEE: Over a month.

HABIB: Right.

HEADLEE: And you say that you need the fasting, not God. So, at this point, more than a month into your fast, what's changed for you? How does it help you?

HABIB: Well, you know, the idea of fasting is that you spend less time focusing on your body and on food, and you spend more time in prayer and more time in...

HEADLEE: Really? I hate to interrupt you, but really? Because, after a month without really eating, doesn't it make you think about food all the time?

HABIB: No. You get used to it. There are people that get fixated, but again, it's a process. When I was younger, yeah, I did get fixated on food. But for the most part, you avoid going to places where you're going to have to think twice about whether you want to fast or not. I haven't been to In and Out in a long time. But on the other end, you have a goal and, with that goal, I don't hesitate to fast.

And our Coptic Orthodox Church probably fasts the most out of any tradition of the Orthodox churches. We fast for probably more than two-thirds of the year for...

HEADLEE: I should mention, for those who don't know it, In and Out is - it's a fast food restaurant, In and Out burger, very common in Southern California, where you are.

HABIB: So for us in the Coptic Orthodox Church, we know the benefits of fasting, and other religions know the benefit of fasting, as well.

HEADLEE: That's Father Daniel Habib, a Presbyter at St. John Coptic Orthodox Church in Covina, California. He joined us from member station KPCC in Pasadena. Thank you. Merry Christmas and have a wonderful feast come Christmas.

HABIB: Thank you very much.

HEADLEE: We're going to end our segment with another traditional Coptic hymn. It's called "Psalm 150 Festive," with Cantor Ibrahim Ayad. It's sung on Christmas tradition.

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