A family gathering on the eve of Christ’s Nativity
Excerpted from “God with Us: a Journey of Expectation, Preparation and Fulfillment” published by the Byzantine Seminary Press. The book also includes chapters on fasting, theology of the incarnation and Old Testament prophecies. Meditations on the scripture and liturgical texts for all the major feasts in preparation for the Nativity and Theophany of our Lord.
Throughout much of Central Eastern Europe families gather for Holy Supper on the Eve of the Nativity. The tradition is strong with peoples throughout the Carpathian region and extends north to Poland and Lithuania (but not into Russia). The Holy Supper is a family or village based tradition rather than a prescribed and codified service of the church. As a result, the details of the ritual and menu vary significantly. What follows is an outline of the typical events for this evening in Eastern Europe. This chapter is offered in the hopes of encouraging a strong family centered experience to anticipate the birth of our Lord. In a sense, this custom is our spiritual gift from Eastern Europe to the Christian Church at large.
In a booklet printed many years ago, Fathers Joseph Ridella, Donald Petyo and Michael Huszti of the Parma Eparchy emphasized the importance of observing the traditional Holy Supper: This custom of taking time to gather together in joy as a family and to share a special meal is not only something for fond memories but a vital way of reaffirming the importance of the family where we learn to love and be loved. Beginning our Christmas celebration with Holy Supper is just as meaningful today as it was years ago; perhaps it is needed even more now than ever before. It is our hope that this chapter will provide the means toward a revival of the traditional Holy Supper.
The Holy Supper consists of family blessings, prayerful anticipation for the Birth of Christ, and a fasting meal of twelve dishes. These are the essential components of the evening gathering. The details can be adjusted to fit your family’s situation. Enjoy your time together as you prepare for the coming of our Lord into Bethlehem.
Holy Supper Table
The Church, both in the East and West – has traditionally observed a strict fast on the day before the Nativity of our Lord. Some families in Europe and America observed the fast so strictly that they did not eat any food until Holy Supper. Only the drinking of water was permitted. No wonder everyone waited for Holy Supper!
In Eastern Europe, the day before Christmas was a very busy one indeed for the wife and mother of a family. She spent it entirely in the preparation of the many foods for Holy Supper.
When twilight arrived on Christmas Eve, the mother covered the table with a white linen cloth in memory of the swaddling clothes of Christ Child. When she set the table, she set an extra place to receive a stranger, a place for the Holy Family who found no lodging in Bethlehem’s Inn. The children would vie to spot the first star in the sky after sundown, the star that symbolized the Star of Bethlehem.
When joyful cries announced the first star, the mother could then set the various foods in their proper places on the table. The foods, prepared in or with oil, but without dairy products due to the strict fast, included fish, herring, bobalki, sauerkraut soup with mushrooms or lima beans, meatless holupki, stewed plums, mashed potatoes, honey, garlic, etc. In some villages, there were as many as twelve foods on the table, symbolizing the twelve apostles of Jesus Christ.
In the center of the table was a large round loaf of bread, which symbolized Jesus as the Bread of Life. A tall, blessed white candle, was placed in the bread, as a symbol of the Star of Bethlehem, which guided the shepherds and wise men to worship and adore Christ, the Light of the World.
While mother prepared the table for Holy Supper, the father fed the cattle a little earlier than usual. He then picked up some straw and entered the hut, saying:
We wish happiness, fortune and health with the approaching Feast Day of the Nativity of Our Lord, and we hope all of us may live to another Christmas, live in peace and happiness, and we ask God’s blessings upon all of us.
The straw was strewn on the floor and some of it was also placed on the table or under the white tablecloth, symbolizing the fact that Jesus lay humbly in our poverty on the straw in a manger. The father may have prepared a sheaf of wheat or oats and placed it in the icon corner in hopes of a good harvest in the next year.
Immediately before the beginning of Holy Supper, all participants went to a nearby stream or creek to wash their faces and hands. This was done in the belief that they would be clean and healthy during the coming new year. The washing also recalled the tradition that the shepherds first washed themselves before they went to see the newly born Christ Child.
Returning to the house, they all enthusiastically greeted each other with Christ is born! Glorify Him! They then gathered around the table and the father, opening the Holy Supper with prayer, asked God’s blessings on the foods they were about to eat.
In many families, the head of the household would break a Lenten fast bread and give everyone at the table a piece of it. The father then poured himself a glass of wine, recalling Christ at the last supper, and proposed the following toast:
Grant, O God, that we may live to an even better Holy Night next year. May the Lord give good health to you, my dear wife, and to our children, to my good and bad neighbors, to my friends and enemies. May God bless all Christians here and abroad, and may He grant eternal memory and heaven to the departed. And above all, my Little Jesus, born this day, bring peace, health and happiness!
The mother replied: Grant it, Oh Lord! She also took a little drink and expressed similar greetings. The older children were allowed to take a sip.
The mother sprinkled all the family members with holy water so that their minds and hearts would open to the meaning of the Birth of Christ. The father also took the holy water, sprinkling the livestock and household animals, and treating them to sugar or salt and plenty of feed. Many believed that the animals could speak at midnight on Christmas Eve and feared they might complain to God if mistreated.
A Honeyed Sign of the Cross
After dipping her forefinger into the honey, the mother made a sign of the cross on the foreheads of all present, including herself. The use of honey symbolized her prayer that the lives of all present would be sweet without bitterness. However, when the mother made a honeyed sign of the cross on the forehead of her marriageable daughter, she expressed her prayerful wish: “May Jesus grant that the young men will go after you like the bees go after honey!”
The mother then dipped garlic into honey and each one present had to taste it. They believed that garlic chased away all pagan and evil spirits and kept them healthy. While giving the garlic to taste, the mother said: “May God grant that you be as healthy as this garlic!” Yes, even in this day and age, many people believe that garlic has curative powers and science finds new applications for the medicinal use of garlic every day!
With the symbolic preliminaries out of the way, grace was said and the family began to eat the delicious strict-fast foods on the table. No one was permitted to by-pass a food; he or she at least had to taste it.
After Holy Supper, the cattle also received a portion of each of the foods that were on the table, thus symbolizing the fact that at His birth, Jesus was surrounded by cattle.
The Holy Supper ended with an extemporaneous prayer by the head of the household who again expressed gratitude to Christ and wished everyone a Happy and Blessed Nativity.
Most of the parents did not have Christmas trees to decorate. Those that did have trees decorated them with the help of their children immediately after Holy Supper. Singing Carols and hymns, they placed homemade ornaments, including colorful red and white-painted walnuts on the trees.
Carols and hymns were sung in every house in the village, starting immediately after the conclusion of Holy Supper.
After Holy Supper, house-to-house singing of carols and hymns also began. Young lads, upon entering the house, started singing (Your Birth, the Nativity Troparion, and the hymn “Wondrous News” after which one of them extended the traditional greeting:
Following an ancient custom we, too, like shepherds of old, have come to adore little Jesus. We humbly show our adoration and thus glorify Jesus. May we, with His help, be able to celebrate these joyous Holy Days in peace and happiness. We wish all of you peaceful and happy holy days.
Receiving a monetary gift, the lads departed and continued on their way.
Some carolers would re-enact the Nativity Scene, stating that they were shepherds who had come from Bethlehem, bringing with them the manger from the Bethlehem stable-cave. While performing the Nativity Scene, they sang a few Christmas Carols, concluding with greetings from the Old Shepherd.
My dear fellow Christians, we are deeply grateful for your warm reception. We sincerely say “Thank You” and offer the best of wishes of this Holy Christmas
Season. May the good Lord Jesus grant you all that you need. May He bless you with health and happiness. May these gifts of the Lord be yours for many years!
Shortly after the carolers had departed, the father and the oldest son and daughter trudged through the snow to participate in the midnight services in the church. During which the entire congregation, led by the pastor and cantor, in unison welcomed Christ Child with enthusiastic, moving and hearty rendition of “God With Us!”.
Yes, the enthusiastic singing of “God With Us” was a climactic conclusion to an unforgettable Nativity Eve in the Eastern Europe. May the just as enthusiastic rendition of “God With Us” be a fitting climax to an always-remembered Nativity Eve in the Appalachians, the Alleghenies, the Rockies, and the Plains or anywhere in America!
Like the carolers, we extend an encouraging greeting to promote the revival of this beautiful tradition of the Holy Supper in your own home:
My dear fellow Christians, I extend the best of wishes of this Holy Christmas Season. May Infant Jesus grant all that you need and may He bless you with health and happiness now and during the New Year.
Christ is Born! Glorify Him!
Holy Supper Menu
The traditional Holy Supper consists of twelve dishes in honor of the number of apostles. This is a day of strict fast, so all dishes should be selected and prepared without meat, cheese or dairy products. In addition, small portions should be served in keeping with the character of fasting, this is not a feast. What follows are some sample recipes of dishes one might find at a Holy Supper in Eastern Europe. The meal should include bread. Breaking bread at a meal is a longstanding Christian tradition evoking the Eucharistic of our Lord. Feel free to build your own menu with additional appropriate dishes from your own family collection.
PIROHI (strict fast)
2 c. flour
1/2 c. oil or softened oleo
3/4 c. potato water
1 small onion, chopped
salt to taste
Mix flour and salt in a deep bowl, making a well in the dough. Work potato water into the well, making a pliable dough. Kneed and roll out the dough to 1/2 inch thick, cutting dough into 3- or 4-inch squares or circles.
Place a small amount of filling on each square or circle and fold dough over filling, forming a triangle or half moon shape, and pinching all around the edges to seal well to keep filling from running out.
Fill a large stock pot or kettle with water. Add a pinch of salt and bring water to boil. Drop pirohi into boiling salted water. Bring water to boil again and boil pirohi 3-4 minutes (they will float when done). Stir gently with flat wooden spoon to assure that the pirohi are thoroughly and evenly cooked. Remove pirohi to a colander to drain after pouring cold water over them to prevent them from sticking together.
Pour the oil into a skillet and sauté onions until transparent and golden brown. To serve, remove pirohi to a bowl or platter and pour onion mixture over them. (Fillings appear beneath the second recipe.)
Pirohi (with egg)
1 c. flour
About 4 T. water
Mix flour and egg with enough water to make a soft dough; knead well. Roll out on floured board until thin. Cut into squares. Place 1 teaspoon filling on each square. Fold in half, making a triangle. Pinch edges well to keep filling inside. Drop into boiling salted water and cook until they rise to surface. Cook 5 min. longer. Rinse in colander with hot water. Drain. Pour melted butter over pirohi and serve.
Cheese filling: Mix together 1/2 cup dry cottage cheese, 1 egg yolk, 1 teaspoon butter, pinch salt.
Potato filling: Add 1 tablespoon butter to 1 large cooked and mashed potato. (Optional – grated cheese, to taste)
Cooked Sauerkraut filling: Drain and rinse sauerkraut in cold water Brown diced onion in shortening. Add sauerkraut. Cook until tender.
Lekvar filling: Lekvar (prune butter) may be used.
Kracun (Bread – strict fast)
1 pkg. dry yeast
4 T. sugar
1/2 c. lukewarm water
6 c. flour
1/2 t. salt
1 t. salt
1 T. sugar
4 T. salad oil
Dissolve yeast in warm water with 1/8 teaspoon salt and 1 tablespoon sugar. Set in warm place to rise. Sift 6 cups flour in deep bowl. Add 2 cups warm water, 4 tablespoons sugar, 1 teaspoon salt, 4 tablespoons salad oil.
Knead well and set aside to rise. When double in bulk, punch down, let rise second time until double. Punch down. Divide in two. Shape one part into round bread, cover and let stand 20 minutes. Punch down and reshape. Place in greased round pan. Allow to rise until double in bulk.
Bake at 350º for 1 hour.
NOTE: The second part of this dough will be used for bobalki.
Babka (Sweet Bread)
1/4 c. milk
1 t. salt
1 pkg. dry yeast
1/2 c. butter or oleo
1/4 c. warm water
2 c. flour, sifted
1/2 c. candied fruit
4 T. sugar
1/4 c. golden raisins or currants
Scald milk, cool to lukewarm. Dissolve yeast in water. Add milk. Add 1 c. of the flour, 1 T. sugar and mix well. Cover and let rise in a warm place until bubbly and light. Add remaining flour and other ingredients. Beat well. Put into a large well-greased mold. Let rise in a warm place for 15-30 minutes. Bake at 400º for 30 minutes. Remove from oven. Pour syrup over bread. Let syrup absorb. Remove from pan and ice with confectione’ sugar.
Syrup: In a saucepan, bring 1/2 c. sugar, 1/3 c. water and 1 t. rum flavoring to a boil.
CHRISTMAS EVE BOBALKI
Use the other half of the above dough for bobalki. Knead and roll on floured board into rope. Cut and roll into balls about 1 inch in diameter. Place on floured pan, let rise 15 minutes. Bake at 350 for 10 minutes, or until just slightly brown. Cook, then place in deep bowl, pour boiling water over just to soak a little. Drain in colander; then place in serving dish. Heat honey diluted with a little water and pour over bobalki.
Mix 1/2 cup ground poppy seed and 1/4 cup sugar and then add to bobalki. Let stand several hours in cool place (or refrigerator) for several hours before serving. Bobalki may also be served with sweet cabbage or sauerkraut. Sauté cabbage or kraut with onion in salad oil, then gently toss with bobalki.
Machanka (Mushroom Soup)
7 c. chopped fresh mushrooms
1 small onion, chopped
3 quarts water
3 T. oil (butter when non-fast)
1 qt. sauerkraut juice
3 T. flour
salt and pepper (to taste)
1 raw potato, peeled and diced (optional)
Cook mushrooms in water about 1 hour. Brown butter and onion; add flour and brown well. Add sauerkraut juice and raw potato, if desired, and boil this for 5 minutes. Add to soup and boil 1/2 hour longer.
Traditionally dried mushrooms are used. If using dry, soak overnight. In the morning, cook the mushrooms in the water. Add salt and pepper to taste, and cook for 2 hours or more. To thicken the traditional version, use zapraska, below.
Zapraska (Soup Thickener)
(This is utilized in many of the traditional Holy Supper dishes.)
Brown 1 chopped onion in 2 tablespoons salad oil. Add browned onion to mushroom soup. Add 2 tablespoons of flour slowly to remaining oil, browning and adding to thicken mushroom soup. Cook for a few minutes and serve hot. (A can of tomatoes may be added to the zapraska.)
LIMA BEAN SOUP
1/2 pound dried lima beans
(or 1 pound can, reducing required water to 1 quart)
1 1/2 qts., plus 1 cup water
1 T. oil
2 1/2 c. potatoes, peeled and diced
1 med. onion, chopped
2 T. catsup (optional)
2 T. flour
salt and pepper to taste
Bring beans to boil in water, cooking until partially done (about an hour), and add water if necessary.
Season beans with salt and pepper, add uncooked diced potatoes and catsup. Lightly brown onion in butter, adding flour and continue browning until transparent and golden. Add a cup of hot water, stirring until well blended. Add bean mixture and continue cooking, adding water as needed, until beans are fully cooked.
GREEN SPLIT PEA SOUP
1 pound dried green split peas
1 med. onion, diced
6-7 c. water
salt and pepper to taste
1 stalk celery, diced
Soak peas in cold water overnight. Drain and add water, onion and celery. Bring vegetables to a boil in water, skimming the starch that rises to the top from time to time. Lower the heat and simmer for 2-3 hours. Stir frequently to prevent sticking. Add more water or zapraska for desired thickness. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
KAPUSTA (Sauerkraut and Beans)
2-pound can or bag sauerkraut, undrained
(or to reduce salt content, rinse and replace brine with water)
1-pound can Great Northern, Butter or Navy beans
8 oz. package mushrooms, rinsed and sliced
Zapraska, to taste (optional)
2 T. brown sugar per pound of sauerkraut (optional)
In a saucepot, cook sauerkraut with juice, until tender, about an hour; add beans, with juice and cook a few minutes more.
Make zapraska in a skillet, using 2 T. salad oil and 1 T. flour. Add sauerkraut and bean mixture to zapraska, stirring constantly. Cook for about 10-15 minutes longer. (For a thinner mixture, add liquid to desired consistency.) Serve this over mashed potatoes.
Although this recipe is relatively simple, a crock pot may be used. In the morning, layer a third each of sauerkraut with juice, beans (drained and rinsed) and mushroom slices. Sprinkle brown sugar over each sauerkraut layer. Cover the pot and turn heat to High, but lower it after an hour. Cook all day (6 hours minimum). If zapraska is desired, make it as above and stir into the sauerkraut, beans and mushrooms. Cook 10-15 minutes longer.
10 c. flour
2 eggs, beaten
2 yeast cakes (or 2 pkgs. dry yeast)
2 T. salt
1/4 c. sugar
2 sticks margarine
2 1/2 c. milk (or more if necessary)
Knead all together until well blended as for bread dough. Let rise double in bulk in warm place. Punch down; let rise again. Turn out onto floured board, separate into 8 or 10 portions. Let rise until light. With rolling pin flatten enough to place about 1 cup of filling in center of each mound of dough. Bring dough up over mound and pinch together to shape a round ball. Let rest about 1/2 hour with filling, then carefully roll out as thin as you want it. Place on cookie sheet. Bake until golden brown, then butter on both sides. Rounds should be about 14″ in diameter or as thin as you like them.
Fillings: Fried cabbage or potato and cheese.
HOLUBKI (Stuffed Cabbage – strict fast)
2 c. cooked rice
1 large onion, diced
1 head cabbage (about 3 pounds)
1 c. fresh mushrooms, sliced
2 1/2 t. salt
3 T. oil
1/4 t. pepper
2 T. chopped dill
1 2-pound can tomatoes in juice
Sauté the onions until light brown. Add mushrooms, salt, pepper and dill, then combine with rice. Steam cabbage and remove core. Place ball of rice mixture into a cabbage leaf , then roll as for a bundle, tucking ends in. Put in a baking dish and cover with tomatoes and a little catsup. Add 1 c. water and bake at 350 for 1 hour.
FISH (3 variations)
Any white fish, cut into serving pieces
Salt and pepper, to taste
White Wine (optional)
Salt and pepper both sides of each piece of fish, then dredge in flour. In heavy skillet, fry pieces in oil briefly, until golden brown. Remove from skillet onto paper towels to absorb oil. When all pieces have been fried and drained, place them in a baking dish or pan. Cover with aluminum foil so that fish does not dry out, and bake at 325 for 25-30 minutes, until done.
Fish may be baked without frying first, for those who cannot eat fried foods. Season the fish with salt and pepper and place in pan. Pour white wine over the fish. Cover with aluminum foil so that fish does not dry out, and bake at 350 for 15-20 minutes, until done.
A third alternative is to spray the pan with cooking oil, take a half a can of stewed tomatoes (we use the kind with pepper and onions) and spread it over the pan. Salt and pepper the fish pieces and place them on top of the stewed tomatoes. Put the rest of the stewed tomatoes over the fish and cover with aluminum foil, and bake at 325 for 25-30 minutes, until done. Even small children and non-fish-eaters seem to be able to tolerate this.
SPINACH CAKES for strict fast
1 pound spinach or equivalent (frozen, thaw and squeeze out water; or 2 cans, well drained)
1 large onion, diced
1 T. cinnamon
2 T. oil
1 t. salt
1/4 t. black pepper
Wash, drain and chop spinach. Add diced onion. Add remaining ingredients. Use your favorite bobalki dough recipe. Roll out a small portion of dough at a time and cut into large squares. Fill each square with about 1 T. filling Fold over and pinch as you would for pirohi, being sure to seal edges Prick with fork and brush with oil. Bake on well-greased cookie sheet at 400º for 20 minutes or until golden brown.
KESELITSA (must be started day before Nativity Eve)
1/2 box Old Fashioned Quaker Oats
2 T. flour
salt to taste
1 1/2 cakes yeast
1 t. caraway seed
1 quart lukewarm water
Place oats in a large bowl. Crumble the yeast into the oats. Add the flour and then pour in the water. Stir all ingredients well. Cover the bowl and place near a warm spot to ferment all day and night. The following day, gradually add: 3 quarts lukewarm water to the same bowl; stir well. Strain through a sieve, then cook the oats slowly, stirring constantly. Add garlic and caraway seed. Keselitsa is ready when the spoon becomes coated. Serve with boiled or mashed potatoes.
FRUIT COMPOTE for Holy Supper
1/2 pound dried apricots
1/2 c. brown sugar
1/2 pound dried prunes
cinnamon to taste
3 slices lemon
4 slices orange
4 c. water
Wash the fruit. Let soak in cold water 1 hour. Place in kettle with water. If desired, add cinnamon. Let simmer until fruit is tender. Add sugar. Cool and serve.
ORICHOVNYKY Nut Rolls
8 c. flour
1/2 pound butter
2 c. milk, scalded
1/2 pound oleo or Crisco
4 egg yolks
1 T. salt
1 c. sugar
1 1/2 t. vanilla
1 large cake yeast (or 3 pkgs. dry yeast)
Dissolve yeast in 1 cup of the lukewarm milk. Stir well. Add sugar, shortening and salt to the rest of the milk and cool. Beat egg slightly and add to mixture, then add the yeast mixture to the rest of the lukewarm mixture. Put half of the flour in a bowl and add the above mixture a little at a time. Mix well. Add remainder of flour to make soft dough, using just enough flour to knead without sticking. Cover and let rise to double in bulk.
Keep in warm place and let rise (about 2 hours). Knead down a little to get out puffiness. Divide into 6 parts and let stand 10 minutes. Roll out and spread with nut mixture. Roll tightly and place on greased baking sheet and let rise about 1 hour and bake in 350° oven for 35-40 minutes. Brush each roll with slightly beaten egg before baking. Brush with melted butter after they are taken out of the oven.
4 pounds finely ground nuts
1 stick butter
4 c. sugar
1/4 c. milk (enough to moisten nut mixture)
Poppy Seed Filling
1 1/2 pounds ground poppyseed
juice of 1/2 lemon
1/4 c. honey
pinch of cinnamon
Originally Posted March 16, 2009
Last Revised on November 05, 2011
8 thoughts on “Christmas Eve Holy Supper”
Wed December 22, 2010, 16:54:56
Thank you,Steve Puluka, for this publication of the Holy Supper. This is our third Christmas away from our family in Armagh, Pa, and my first attempt at making a Holy Supper. It may be modified (Mrs. T’s Perogies) yet, a tradition will continue.
Thu December 24, 2015, 14:01:11
This article is awesome. We still carry this tradition and it is very similar. Thank You for the time you tool to write and update this article.
Sat December 26, 2015, 12:50:06
This was wonderful! We have a blended family. I am cradle Orthodox of Slavic descent and my husband, of Swedish descent, is a convert. Your article brought back such wonderful childhood memories for me. Ironically, we were just discussing this tradition with our children and replicated the dinner this year for the first time. I found your article today as I was researching something for a Sunday School lesson. Thank you for sharing!
First time ever seeing an actual recipe for Keselitsa,WOW!!!!! Thought my family made it up..LOL Thank you cannot wait to try it!!!!
Thank you for the compilation of recipes. Other than my grandmother’s recipe, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a recipe for Keselitsa in print. It was a legendary dish on Russian Christmas Eve.
I have been looking everywhere for the Christmas Eve bean soup recipe that my mom and Baba made every year and this is the closest I have found! Sadly, we lost our mom last February and she was the last one that knew how to make the soup (I thought I had watched her make it enough to know but found out last Christmas I had not!). I will try this recipe this year and see if the family thinks this has what I missed from how she made hers!
Thank you for this wonderful article!!
Thank you! My heritage is 100% Slovak and although my children are 50%, I have spent the last 30 years continuing the tradition. Your site has been invaluable in explaining the process and allowing me to expand my menu.
Thank you so much! My mother made “holy supper” years ago. So many traditions have been lost. I will continue this tradition this year.