This autumn, I made an intentional effort to slow down and enjoy the radiance of the leaves changing on the trees. I made the time to go hiking several times with my boys and we incorporated our botany study before, during, and after these hikes as well. I soaked in every glorious moment of it this year. So often, I look forward to this time of year with great longing, only to blink and suddenly it’s January or February…feeling as though the past several months were nothing more than a rushed blur.
Today starts the Nativity Fast for us (November 28th for Old Calendar) and this is the first time, in memory, that I have found myself thinking about what I want to accomplish during this fast. I feel as though our intentional effort to live in the moment this autumn has helped me to refocus for the Christmas season as well.
For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been deep in thought about what I want to attempt to accomplish with my kids before Christmas. Below, I’ve listed out some ways I’m hoping to prepare for Christmas with my family.
On November 14th, we have the feast of St. Philip. In Fr. Thomas Hopko’s podcast on The Nativity Fast, he explains that St. Philip invites us in Scripture to “come and see.” Fr. Hopko goes on to say that first we have to come to the services, then we need to come desiring to see.
On the following day, November 15th, we begin the Nativity Fast. As we prepare for the upcoming fast, let’s make an intentional effort to attend additional services during this fast. How many people in your family have a smart phone? During dinner this week, discuss which services you plan to attend and mark them on your phone’s calendar – set reminders before everyone disperses from eating. If your family uses a calendar on the wall, label the date and time you plan to attend services.
Which services will our family attend during the Nativity Fast?
Check your parish’s calendar or bulletins for services and times. Many parishes will have a service on the following days:
- Saint Herman of Alaska on August 9th, November 15th, November 28th (Old Calendar), or December 13th (The date for commemorating Saint Herman will depend on who you are with. The reason for this is that his funeral was held about a month after he died. Today, there is a pilgrimage to the island every year on August 9th, which is the day he was canonized.)
- Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple on November 21st
- Thanksgiving on November 23rd
- Saint Catherine on November 25th
- Saint Andrew on November 30th
- Saint Nicholas on December 6th
- The Conception by St. Anna of the Most Holy Theotokos on December 9th
- Prophet Daniel and the Three Holy Youths on December 17th
- Sunday of the Forefathers on December 17th
- Sunday of the Fathers on December 24th
- The Nativity of Christ on December 25th
Why should we go to liturgy on Thanksgiving?
“The life of the Church is not readily distilled into ethical principles, but it undoubtedly fosters a certain ethos – an atmosphere or mode of living. If we believe that we become our true selves only when we give thanks to God, it is not surprising that the idea of a ‘eucharistic ethos’ should loom large. Contemporary Orthodox often speak of a ‘eucharistic and ascetic ethos’ as an antidote to a way of living that is environmentally destructive. The two epithets illuminate each other. The ascetic aspect indicates that we walk lightly on the earth as we learn to distinguish need from greed. But the eucharistic aspect shows how this differs from a joyless puritanism: the emphasis is not on the giving up, but on the giving thanks. A eucharistic ethos starts from the recognition of everything created as ‘God’s own,’ so that all our use of the world is a cause for thankfulness to him.” – Elizabeth Theokritoff, Living in God’s Creation: Orthodox Perspectives on Ecology
Even though the author was speaking to the topic of what many term, “green living,” the topic of thankfulness very much applies to all aspects of our life. In the United States, we dedicate an entire day to being thankful to God for our bountiful harvest. It seems only appropriate that we gather together at church before gathering together for a large meal which celebrates being thankful.
We can teach our children how to bake prosphora (which means offering) during the Nativity fast or for Christmas. We take the gifts that have been given to us and transform them into a gift to God.
Fr. Alexander Schmemann, Liturgy and Life: Christian Development Through Liturgical Experience:
As a general rule, children like to be in church, and this instinctive attraction to and interest in church services is the foundation on which we must build our religious education. When parents worry that the children will get tired because services are long, they usually subconsciously express their concern not for their children, but for themselves. Children penetrate more easily than adults into the world of ritual, into liturgical symbolism. The experience of the “Holy,” of the “mysterious tremendum” which is at the root of all religion – the feeling of an encounter with Someone who is beyond daily life – is more accessible to children than it is to us. “Unless you turn and become like children” (Matt. 18:3): these words apply to the receptivity, the open-mindedness, the naturalness which we lose when we grow out of childhood. How many men have devoted their lives to the service of God and consecrated themselves to the Church because, from their very childhood, they have treasured their love for the house of God and the joy of liturgical experience. Therefore, the first duty of parents and educators is to “Let the children come…and do not hinder them” (Matt. 19:14) from attending Church. It is in church that children must hear the word “God” for the first time. In a classroom it is difficult to understand, it remains abstract; but in church it is “in its own element.” In our childhood we have the capacity to understand, not intellectually, but with our whole being, that there is no greater joy on earth than to be in church, to participate in church services, to breathe the fragrance of the Kingdom of Heaven, which is “joy and peace in the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 14:17).
The Church, in all of her wisdom, understands that we learn through all five of our senses. We are invited to participate in the Divine Liturgy not just through one or two of our senses – but by engaging every single one of our senses!
When we strive to expand our children’s knowledge about our Orthodox Christian faith, it’s important to try to incorporate as many of their senses as possible in the lesson, whenever possible.
There are several traditions that can be used to teach our children about the Nativity Fast, the saints we commemorate during this time, as well as the Nativity of Christ.
Learning is for adults too!
Learning happens over the course of a lifetime. Let’s remember to set the example for our children of what is truly important in our lives and continue striving to learn more about our faith with each new season and each new year.
I’ve found that the best time for me to listen to these podcasts is while I’m making dinner in the evenings. I use a bluetooth speaker for my phone and play the podcast through the Ancient Faith Radio app. (Although, I’ve also placed my phone in a clean coffee mug which amplifies the volume as well.)
When is the best time for you to listen to a podcast? – During your morning and evening drive, while you’re taking a shower, while you’re waiting for kids at extracurricular activities?
Fr. Thomas Hopko has some great resources for the Nativity Fast:
Learning About Saints & Christmas:
There are an abundance of books and resources available for this holiday season. Browse and find what will work best for your family:
- The Saint Nicholas Day Snow is a new book by Charlotte Riggle
- St. Nicholas Bundle from Kelsey Lawson’s Etsy Shop
- The Christmas Shop at Ancient Faith Radio
- Search Amazon with “Orthodox Christmas books”
- The Saint Nicholas Center – a non-Orthodox site, but they provide wealth of information on Saint Nicholas
In modern times, Saint Nicholas plays a major role in the Christmas season. He is also especially dear to our family as he is my daughter’s patron saint. Every year, we read a story about his life and my kids each receive some chocolate coins in remembrance of his life.
So often, parents use something to help children remember the story of a saint – whether it’s a treat, a song, craft, or something else. Children relate these things to the story they heard and remember them better.
Praxis is an integral part of teaching our children about their faith. It is our active participation in living our Orthodox Christian faith. It is the difference between knowing we should fast and actually doing it. It is the difference between knowing we should pray and actually doing it. It is the difference between knowing we should help those in need and actually doing it.
The lives of the saints are not simply there for us to oooh and ahhh over. They guide us in ways that we can emulate and grow closer to God – because we are all called to be saints.
My husband and I often read the lives of the saints to our children, but we also always talk about how we could use them as an example in our lives today.
How do we emulate the saints during the Nativity Fast?
It is so important for us to teach our children not only about the lives of the saints and Christ but also how to emulate them.
Saint Herman cared and nurtured an entire village during an epidemic illness.
- Are their elderly shut-ins at your parish?
Bring them a meal, a gift, clean their home, take them grocery shopping, sit on the couch and listen to them tell stories over a cup of coffee.
- Could you teach your children some basics for taking care of their family when some or all of you come down with a cold or flu this winter?
Bring drinks to the person who is sick, learn how to make soup, learn how to wash a load of laundry when a baby or toddler throws up on everything.
Saint Nicholas is infamously known for tossing bags of money through a window which allowed three poor girls to get married. It’s important to put into context exactly what Saint Nicholas did for these girls. At that time, girls could not get jobs and own property like we can today. If these girls didn’t have money for a dowry, then when their dad died, they were going to be homeless and forced to turn to prostitution to survive. Saint Nicholas provided a means for these girls to get married – to have food to eat, a home to live in, clothes to wear, and the love of their husband and future children. It’s always nice to give gifts to our friends and family – but this is not the example that Saint Nicholas gave to us.
What did Saint Nicholas teach us? He taught us to attempt to give anonymously, but…even he got caught, so being anonymous is not always possible. The important thing is that we’re not seeking to be thanked for our gift. He also taught us to help in a way that makes a difference in the life of the person.
- Is there someone at your parish who could use some help?
If you don’t know, you can always talk to your parish priest in private. Ask him if there is someone you could help and what they need. Maybe someone needs help paying their electric bill. Maybe someone needs money for groceries. Pass the money or gift card to them through your priest and tell him that you would prefer to remain anonymous. If you know a person or family that needs help paying for something and you know where they live – you could mail them a gift card, you could leave an anonymous package on their doorstep, you could give it to one of their children as they are walking out to their car so the parents can’t refuse the gift.
- Is there someone in your family who could use some help?
Do they need some free babysitting, do they need help paying some bills, do they need some groceries, do they need someone to listen to them?
There are also numerous Orthodox charities that you could donate to during this season. One of them is personally dear to our family – Saint Basil Academy in New York. Saint Basil Academy was originally an orphanage and school for young women which was started by the Ladies of Philoptochos back in the 1940’s. Through the years, its predominant function has changed from an orphanage to a foster home for Orthodox children, as well as for non-Orthodox sibling groups from the state of New York. Saint Basil’s also cares for widows and widowers with children.
It is through the council of Fr. Costas (the director of Saint Basil’s) that my husband and myself decided to pursue becoming foster parents over 12 years ago. The life of a foster parent is filled with joy and difficulty – just like any other parent – but the dynamics are different. Foster children don’t live with their parents anymore because it wasn’t safe for them. These children have experienced and seen many things that we all strive to shield from our kids. Many of these children have experience psychological and physical trauma and it takes special training to understand how to deal with these issues. Birthparents have left these children with many things to deal with long after they no longer live with them – fetal alcohol syndrome from birth mom drinking while she was pregnant, the effects of drug use by birth mom while she was pregnant, brain damage from being beaten…the list and scenarios are endless for foster children.
At Saint Basil’s, there are some trained medical professionals who care for the children just as we bring our children to the pediatrician, dentist, speech therapist, occupational therapist, etc. Saint Basil’s also employs many caring individuals who help care for these children daily, just as any other foster parent or parent would like to care for their children.
Foster parents are faced with helping children heal along with learning how to deal with their medical needs, physical needs, and how to deal with their peers and adults appropriately (because oftentimes this is something they lacked with their birthparents) – in addition to taking care of their daily needs. As a foster parent myself, I have spent years researching and learning how to understand the situation I’m dealing with as well as how to help my children through it. Ongoing training is critical.
My brother, Daniel Christ, became an assistant direct at Saint Basil Academy this past summer. One of his jobs there is to train the staff, who live and care for the needs of the children – Why are the children are doing what they are doing and how do I handle it best? Similarly to a teacher who buys the great majority of what they have in their classroom, my brother needs to acquire training materials and tools for training his staff. If you would like to play a part in helping these children heal and provide some of these training materials for the staff of Saint Basil’s, please click on this link to Amazon to send one or more of these resources directly to my brother at Saint Basil Academy. (Thank you!!!!!)