Christmas, St. Basil’s Day, Epiphany…constitutes the period known in Greek simply as “Dodekaimeron” (twelve days). While the commercialized glitz and glamor of Western Christmas and New Year’s Eve may serve as a perennial attraction for tourists, the unique Hellenic concept of “the feast” – special days when Hellenism harnesses all the potency of its poetry, music, art, existential philosophy, and zest for life – represents a true destination of the heart; a spiritual/cultural Ithaca awaiting to welcome us to its ancient shores, where no matter how far away we have traveled or how long we have been at sea, the feeling of belonging always rekindles like the warm blaze of the hearth.
One of the reasons why feasts became Hellenes’ vehicle to display all the grandeur of their ecumenical cultural legacy lies likely in the existential or metaphysical significance that they attributed to these empirical milestones.
Take the Christmas feast, for example. Romanity’s famous author Alexandros Papadiamantis notes that “if Pascha is Christianity’s most brilliant feast, Christmas is certainly the sweetest and most touching, and this is why it was always considered as the family holiday extraordinaire.” Although the tradition of celebrating the holiday on December 25th was established in the West, it was quickly adopted by St. John Chrysostom near the end of the 4th century following his ascent to the see of Constantinople on December 15th.
Despite the initial lack of uniformity, the celebration of the Savior’s birth inspired the muse of melodists and panegyrists nonetheless, with St. Gregory the Theologian lending his oratorical masterstrokes to form the First Canon of Christmas (“Christ is born; glorify Him) and St. John of Damascus penning the second Canon in iambic verse. Both literary treasures were/will be (depending on the festal calendar followed) chanted in Greek Orthodox churches around the world on Christmas Day, leading Papadiamantis to remark “I undoubtedly believe that in regards to both meaning and language, the above referenced excerpts are among the most beautiful written masterpieces of all ages.”
As we look into our souls, past the pleasantries of the holiday atmosphere, the picturesque decorations, or the break from the rigors of our daily routines, there lies hidden in our hearts – like the Christ child lying in the manger – the source of joy that makes this historical reality the perennial hope and salvation of mankind, manifested both existentially and historically through the sending of His only-begotten Son into the world to commune with us.
God, transcending the limitations of any existential necessity, freely chooses to exist in the mode of a loving communion of Persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The second Person of the Holy Trinity, Jesus Christ, then surpasses the boundaries of divinity and mortality to take on flesh and human nature. God takes on the mode of man, so that man may have the ability to exist in the mode of God and triumph over death. This is the fundamental message – the tidings of joy – that gives us cause to celebrate ceaselessly and glorify God in the highest. Christ’s birth signifies the proclamation of our emancipation from the bondage of death and the necessity of mortality!
And when the West wraps up its revelry after popping open the champagne corks on New Year’s Eve, Romanity still keeps the celebration going strong for another week, awaiting the feast of Theophany, which literally means “the appearance of God.” Initially celebrated on the same day as Christmas, these major feasts were eventually separated, with Sts. John Chrysostom, Gregory the Theologian, Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory Palamas, and others dedicating timeless rhetorical gems, Sophronios of Jerusalem composing two of the most excellent services in the Church for the service of the Great Sanctification of the Water, and St. John of Damascus lending his quill once again to pen the canons of the feast in iambic verse, whose beauty is rivaled only by its theological depth.
Naturally, the joy experienced by the people on the occasion of the manifestation of the Three Persons of the Holy Trinity (the voice of the Father heard from the heavens, the Son being baptized in the River Jordan, and the descent of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove), the circumscription of the divine, and the sanctification of creation cannot be contained indoors. Following the services faithful flock to the seashores and ports to witness the blessing of the waters and dive into the seas to retrieve the Holy Cross. Priests go from home to home, blessing the residents, while in the villages the plants, wells, cisterns, and animals are also blessed to mark the appearance of Christ, “the unapproachable Light, who came and shone forth.”
Throughout the Dodekaimeron, music fills the air, with the masterpieces of ecclesiastical hymnography followed by traditional carols, which vary regionally and include cleverly crafted wishes for health, happiness, and prosperity. In the midst of the two feast days of our Lord stands the feast of St. Basil the Great. In the traditional carols, St. Basil is depicted as a young boy, who responding to the question of whence he came and where he is heading, replies “I am coming from my mother’s and going to school. I am going to learn to write and say my alphabet.”
As Papadiamantis points out, “the Greek people’s innate love of knowledge, which survived in the midst of so many persecutions and sorrows, used this purely Hellenic Saint’s reputation for learnedness as an exhortation to young people to study and learn. And so, many centuries later, this great luminary of Caesarea is present as if writing a second ‘Address to Young Men.’”
Certain church leaders would do well to read this last paragraph especially, after closing down yet another Greek school in 2016… But overlooking the few Grinches and goblins that must invariably try and foil every collective undertaking, feasts represent perhaps the most genuine opportunity to share in an empirical mode of existence that organically connects us to millennia of history. And the freedom and joy of transcending time and space – the underlying meaning of feasts, after all – is certainly cause for great celebration
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