Most of my memories of January 7 are wonderful. As a child, my family had just concluded celebrating Christmas and the New Year, and finally arrived at “Ukrainian” Christmas, celebrated on January 7 since most Orthodox and Greek Catholics continued to observe the Julian calendar.
On January 6, we would attend Vigil at the parish presided over by my grandfather in St. Paul, MN. The Vigil was long. The choir had rehearsed singing the festal canon at Matins, with the first Ode beginning with the words “Christ is born; glorify Him!” The choir sang complicated compositions, and the people approached the presider to receive anointing with the oil that had been blessed at the “Litiya” earlier in the Vigil. After receiving anointing, the people would often leave even though they had not been dismissed; my grandfather would stand there with the oil and bark at the people leaving, “the service is not finished.”
We ended the service by singing the traditional Ukrainian carol “Dobriy Vechir Tobi” (“Good evening to you”), and proceeded to the rectory for a solemn meal of specially-prepared dishes.
The following day was more festive: liturgy was preceded by a few carols, the choir usually sang well, and after liturgy, the choir would gather at the rectory for two hours of caroling and festive foods prepared by my grandmother and mother. We agreed that “Ukrainian” Christmas was the “religious” observance of the holiday.
As a middle-aged adult, I reflect on these past experiences and wonder why I remember grandfather telling the people that “the service is not finished” and why my best memories of the gatherings centered on caroling and food. I cannot arrive at any conclusions because the current observance of these feasts, which can also be known as the “Winter Pascha,” include Theophany (also known as “Epiphany” and “Feast of Lights”) on January 6/19, an ancient and solemn feast with powerful Paschal motifs drawing upon the anamnesis of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan. Those who participate in the Theophany water blessing bring empty jars and fill them with the sanctified water, bringing it home for domestic use throughout the year. While they are still in church, they drink the water and anoint themselves with it, in hope that God might heal them of sickness and disease, protect them from visible and invisible enemies, and forgive their sins (the Church asks for these blessings in the prayers appointed for the blessing of waters).
Domestic and secular observances also crowd the calendar. Christmas was preceded by the mad holiday consumer rush, which some deem essential to society’s economic survival. Offices and schools host holiday parties. Schools close. People travel and visit family and friends. In America, the New Year ushers in the spirit of another secular feast: the Super Bowl, in early February. We are pulled in every possible direction; only ice-cold temperatures, snow, or illness can make us stop and rest.
In light of the convergence of holidays at this time of year, my grandfather’s seemingly impotent appeal to worshippers (“the service is not finished!”) seems reasonable.
I know that pastors spend countless hours trying to construct liturgical orders that might permit divine grace to permeate the mad rush to attend the next party at this time of year. It’s frustrating when people seem to ignore the blessings God gives at these festal liturgies.
But perhaps the people’s desire to gather for fellowship in domestic settings tells us something important: that they are getting the message after all and setting aside some time to attend to the other. The joy of singing a carol, preparing and setting the table for an annual meal, and fetching the holy water to have it on hand throughout the year illuminates the people’s desire to honor God when they are not in Church. They might not remember the details from the hymns sung at the Christmas Vigil, but for the most part, they attempt to honor the exclamatory refrain sung at the Orthodox Christmas and Theophany Vigils: “God is with us!” As the “Winter Pascha” becomes an increasingly domestic season, perhaps the knowledge that people want God to be with them is a source of encouragement, even if they can’t remain for the whole liturgy. For me, this may the most important lesson I have retained from my memories of January 7.