Characteristic of the Christmas Vigil are The Royal Hours, a liturgical devotion celebrated only three times a year-on the mornings of the Eve of Epiphany and of Good Friday besides the Eve of Christmas. They are called ” royal” because they were celebrated with great solemnity and in the presence of the royal family. Later in the day, the Liturgy of st. Basil the Great with Vespers is celebrated leaving the late afternoon and evening free for the traditional family celebration of “The Holy Supper” (” Svjata Vecherja” ).
2 The Holy Supper requires special preparation and setting. The dining table is lightly strewn with hay or straw and then covered with a white linen. In the middle of the table, a large round loaf of white bread decorated with traditional symbols similar to the Paska of Easter and called the “Krachun” (0. SI. Karachun-nativity) , is placed between two candles which are lit during the dinner. This explains the derivation of our popular name for Christmas, ” Krachun.”
This traditional setting of the Christmas table, devoid of all pagan or superstitious implications, symbolically represents the scene of Bethlehem.
The round white bread represents the newly-born Saviour Who called Himself “the Bread of Life” (In. 6:35) ; the table covered with straw or hay represents the manger in which He was laid ; the white table cloth His swaddling clothes (Lk. 2:7) , and the lighted candle the star of Bethlehem. In arranging the seating, the father as the head of the household is seated at the head of the table and the family is seated around him. Besides the seating for the entire family, there is always one empty seat which is reserved for the unexpected guest for whom, in the spirit of Slavic hospitality, there should always be room (comp. Lk. 2:7).
3 Before the supper begins, the father lights the candle, symbolizing the appearance of the star, and leads the singing of the festive Troparion, “Your birth, 0 Christ our God” (Rozdestvo Tvoje Christe Boze Nas) with the entire family gathered around the table. He then extends his Chri,stmas wishes in words similar to these :
“I greet you with the Feast of Christ’s Nativity and wish that the Infant Jesus shower upon all of you His choicest blessings. May we all live in health, peace, and happiness and may we all celebrate another Christmas together. A Merry and Blessed Christmas! Christ is Born!”
The father then embraces and kisses each member of the family, and as he expresses his wishes for good health and happiness, he shares a piece of bread (prosphora) dipped in honey with them. This sharing of the bread symbolizes the sharing of life with Jesus and the honey represents God’s blessings (comp. Ps. 81 :17), the source of true happiness.
Since the Eve of Christmas is traditionally a fast day, meat or meat products are never served at the Holy Supper. In many places, custom dictates that even dairy products are excluded. The traditional menu always contains meatless dishes but in great variety and prepared with great care. The meatless dishes symbolize the humility and poverty which surrounded the Birth of Christ. The variety and abundance of food represent the variety and abundance of God’s graces.
During the course of the supper, served leisurely and with a certain solemnity, there prevails a joyous atmosphere reminiscent of the angelic message given to the shepherds that first Christmas Eve: ” I bring you news of great joy to be shared by all people. Today, in the town of David a Savior has been born to you, Who is Christ the Lord” (Lk. 2:10-11). Between the servings of the traditional foods, the festive joy is enhanced by the singing of carols, the reminiscings of the family, and the telling of amusing stories. The Holy Supper is concluded with a traditional carol.
A certain after-supper ritual is generally followed consisting of carolling and the opening of gifts. It is not becoming or customary to retire early on Christmas Eve. Emulating the shepherds, all keep watch (Lk. 2:8) and then, just before midnight, all generally go to church to meet Emmanuel, “God with us!”
In the liturgical books a strict fast is prescribed for the eve of Christmas to remind us of the hardships and privations of Mary and Joseph before the Nativity. Today, this fasting is optional, but in the spirit of our Rite at least abstinence from meat should be observed.