Support our siblings affected by disaster, hunger and oppression through One Great Hour of Sharing.

Christmas in Eastern Europe marked by the spirit of helping others

Holidays are a busy time for outreach by PMA partners

by Kathy Melvin | Presbyterian News Service

Father Frost and Snowflake are pictured with Pastor Vladimir Tatarnikov. (Contributed photo)

LOUISVILLE — The way Christmas is celebrated in Eastern Europe is different than how it’s done in the U.S., but the spirit of giving and helping others is very much the same.

Mission co-worker Ellen Smith is World Mission’s regional liaison for Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Poland. She and her family lived in Russia for two decades. In a recent letter, she talked about the holiday traditions in her adopted homeland.

Smith noted that Jan. 7 is the observed Christmas in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus and Poland, particularly for the Orthodox.

“At the time of the revolution, Russia and its neighbors were still on the Julian calendar,” she wrote. “When the Soviet Union came into being, they switched to the Gregorian calendar. The differences between the Julian and Gregorian calendars shifted Christmas to January 7.

“I have always found it good to be able to celebrate Christmas twice. The Eastern Christmas is a holy festival, gift-giving having been shifted to New Year’s Day by the same Soviets (secularization of all the traditions).”

Smith said Santa Claus became Father Frost, visiting children with his granddaughter, Snowflake. The Christmas tree became the New Year’s tree. For some, New Year’s Day is also celebrated twice —Jan. 1 with the rest of the world, and Jan. 13 as the Old New Year (New Year by the Julian calendar).

In Eastern Europe, Jan. 19, the celebration of the baptism of Christ, is often observed by hardy souls with a plunge through a hole cut in the ice on rivers. Feb. 2 is the Feast of the Presentation in the Temple, the meeting with Simeon and Anna (Luke 2:21-38).

“One of the churches we work with has used this feast day to celebrate the elderly members of their church, those who kept the faith during the difficult days of communism. I have come to appreciate the liturgical calendar,” she said.

Roma children at a holiday celebration held by a faith community in Kursk. (Contributed photo)

Celebration of the Christmas season and the new year is a busy time of outreach for global partners in Eastern Europe. Smith said the Roma congregation in Kursk held a Christmas celebration for the children in their community, gathering gift bags and preparing a program for them.

“The Roma families tend to be among the poorest of the poor,” she said. “Their celebration was humbler than many, but it was a festive day with all the aunts and uncles (not just biological) of their own community. Love is always bountiful in this church.”

Smith said in Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, the community of St. Egidio has been feeding the homeless through the months of the pandemic. During lockdown, they made sandwiches at home and carried them to the homeless who live nearby. At other times, they have had larger feeding points at different locations around Kyiv. For the new year, they organized a special celebration for the homeless, gathering people in a warming tent, letting them decorate the New Year’s tree and sharing a meal and fellowship.

Partners of the Presbyterian Mission Agency visit refugees in Grodno for New Year. (Contributed photo)

“People so often forget the humanity of those who live on the street,” said Smith. “The community gathers with their friends from the street, remembering that Christ too was homeless and poor. One member said, ‘Today he was born. And indeed, born in simplicity and poverty — on the hay by the lambs. And the greatest wealth he gave us is love. It really is such an incredible power! And where there is love, there is kindness. And what will good do?… right, good will overcome evil!’”

Smith said there are many young adult members of the community who were drawn to and transformed by this shared ministry, the common purpose of their work and the friendships they have developed.

Ellen Smith

In Belarus, the Lutheran congregation in Grodno, a city on the border with Poland, has worked for weeks to care for the refugees brought to Belarus from the Middle East, gathering food and warm clothing. For the new year, they visited the refugee camps with Father Frost and Snowflake, carrying gifts.

“May we all keep the warmth of Christmas in our hearts not just for January, but for the year before us,” said Smith.

To support the ministry of Ellen Smith, a gift can be made in her honor. Click here to give to Mission Personnel Support. Mission co-workers are notified when a gift is made in their honor.

Creative_Commons-BYNCNDYou may freely reuse and distribute this article in its entirety for non-commercial purposes in any medium. Please include author attribution, photography credits, and a link to the original article. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDeratives 4.0 International License.

  • Subscribe to the PC(USA) News

  • Interested in receiving either of the PC(USA) newsletters in your inbox?

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.