The Domestic Holy Supper and Tradition

November 15 marked the beginning of a holy fast for the Orthodox Churches, forty days of almsgiving, prayer, and fasting in preparation for the feast of Christmas. There is no need to elaborate the tension between quiet fasting and prayer as offices and friends host one festal party after another before Christmas even arrives. I would like to take a few moments to share with you a domestic Christmas Eve tradition that is not well known: the ‘Holy Supper’ of Christmas Eve.

The Holy Supper tradition is well known to Christians of Ukrainian and Rusyn descent (and certainly to many Poles, Czechs, and Slovaks as well). As one might expect, there is some variation from one domestic observance to another, which occasionally results in the playful critique of another family’s ‘error’ in arranging the activities of the day.

For the East, the day of Christmas Eve (December 24/January 6) is a strict fast, ideally an absolute fast. So the Holy Supper of Christmas Eve is an instance of feasting while fasting, the arduous preparation of savory foods which meet the requirements of dietary prohibitions (in theory, not usually in practice), yet mark the quiet joy of Christmas eve.

The ‘Holy Supper’ originated as an agrarian feast, an opportunity to mark the winter solstice as the beginning of the increase of light and to wish good health and fortune, and a rich harvest for the households in a neighborhood. The agrarian feast included the preparation of specific foods symbolizing wealth and good fortune, and rituals seeking the casting out of evil spirits and protection for the family. Another festive element included singing carols, which often convey greetings for a good new year. The head of the household presided over the domestic ritual.

Those familiar with Holy Supper note the preparation of nine to twelve traditional dishes. Here, I will repeat my earlier emphasis on variation (for example, some Slovaks might replace kutia with a savory mushroom soup;  read on). The twelve dishes might include: cabbage rolls (holubci or holubky), varenyky (pierogies) with cabbage or potatoes, barley, mushrooms, crushed or ground beans, a sour soup (Lenten borscht or cabbage soup), and boiled wheat (kutia), usually sweetened with honey. A variety of breads would accompany the food (my grandmother specialized in making Lenten versions of pyroshky, bread pies stuffed with sauerkraut) along with some kind of local fish. The domestic ritual included inviting storms, frost, hail and ice to the supper, and upon their silent response, asking them to stay away from the household. The supper would begin with everyone eating a spoonful of the kutia (sweetened wheat), and the leader would throw a spoonful on the ceiling to symbolize the great joy coming to the family in the coming year.

I marked Holy Supper as the grandson of an immigrant priest from Ukraine for many years. We would have the solemn supper at his rectory following the Vigil in Church, given the amount of time needed to prepare the food and decorate the table. I remember how much I disliked the kutia, and how I had to ask my grandmother for permission to eat the rest of the food even though I could not finish the boiled wheat. Before we ate, we sang the Christmas “Troparion” (the chief hymn of the feast) and we also sang carols heralding the holiday, as our ancestors had before they were ever Christian. It was such a solemn meal, and savory, even though we did not eat meat. As I came to meet people whose families hailed from different regions, I became familiar with the variations on the food and customs associated with the feast. Some people ate the supper before the Christmas Eve service, and some ate afterwards. The core principles were the domestic quality of the celebration and the sense of feasting while fasting.

Immigrants find it difficult to sustain traditions in a new land, especially when one is pulled to parties with pigs-in-a-blanket and spiked egg nog. I confess that I have not retained the Holy Supper tradition to the letter of the law; I have no idea who would eat the leftovers from the twelve dishes. On a few occasions, we preserved a remnant of the Holy Supper by eating a simple meal with a quiet and solemn, yet joyous domestic celebration of Christmas Eve.

How have communities revised the marking of Holy Supper? The regional provenance of this tradition has created some false assumptions on the part of Orthodox clergy that ‘Holy Supper’ was observed everywhere by everyone, a fatuous assertion. I heard a story of a new bishop who heard that the people of his local parish were not having Holy Supper – it was not native to the people – and he demanded that the people prepare it for him. Recently, a friend told me that some clergy were debating the merits of requiring clergy to have Holy Supper in the parish. Such deliberations misunderstand the domestic origins and regional accents of the ritual; there is no doubt that many people will find the tradition to be too esoteric, especially if its observance would create a conflict with longstanding domestic traditions.

The devotion for a domestic tradition might be the most important feature of the Holy Supper. Clergy are not required for its observance; it is a ritual that families happily observe. I have noticed that the domestic ritual has become a community meal in parishes with people who inherited and sustained the tradition from their native countries. I was astounded and overjoyed to see hundreds of people gathered to celebrate Holy Supper as a parish the last time I observed Christmas according to the Julian calendar in a Ukrainian Orthodox parish.

In the final analysis, I am most intrigued by the notion of feasting while fasting, the permeation of joyous expectation into the eve of a solemn feast, while waiting for the time to break the fast and celebrate the feast in its fullness. My personal memory of Holy Supper in my grandfather’s rectory will forever treasure the quiet solemnity of joyously waiting for Christmas in Lenten feasting.

One comment

  1. Feasting while fasting; what a splendid idea!

    I suspect that the Holy Supper is akin to the Southern Italian La Vigilia with its meal consisting of various quantities of fish on Christmas Eve, once too a fast in the West.

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