The Celebration Of The Nativity Of Christ In Ancient Moscow

IN ancient Rus', the celebration of Christ's Nativity was accompanied by many rites, and it bore within itself the character of that piety and Christian splendor which was natural to our ancestors. All of them, from the least to the greatest, from the commoner to the Tsar', profoundly honored the Great Day on which the Saviour of the world was born.

In the morning of the eve of the feast, on December 24th, the Tsar' himself usually would go to the Dining Chamber or to the Golden Palace, and sometimes even into one of the court churches, in time for the Royal Hours; he would be accompanied by his boyars, all his councilors, his privy-functionaries, and his officials. In the evening of that same day, the Gosudar' [Sovereign] would sally forth to the Uspenskii Sobor [the Cathedral of the Dormition] in time for the Vechernya [Vespers] and the "rite of many years," likewise in the company of his boyars and other high-ranking officials. During this excursion, the Tsar' would wear elegant attire: a fur-lined silken cloak, with exquisitely shaped golden lace and gleaming embroidery, while his boyars would be dressed in fur-lined cloaks of white taffeta.

During the service, the protodeacon of the cathedral would pronounce "Mnogoye lyeto!"["Many years!..."] to the Gosudar' and to the entire Royal House, by name. At the conclusion of this "rite," the Patriarch, with the authorities and the entire congregation of the cathedral would felicitate the Gosudar', and would also wish him "Mnogoye lyeto!..." Thereupon, the Gosudar's boyars, dignitaries, councilors and privy-functionaries, table-attendants, gentlemen-in-waiting, clerks and men of other ranks would also felicitate him. With his "kind word," the Gosudar' would greet both the dignitaries and the people.

Around the fifth or sixth hour of the day, when the dusk would already be lowering, the cathedral protopopes, popes and "the singing classes," i.e., the Gosudar's choirs, would come to the palace to laud the New-born Christ. The Gosudar' would receive them in the Dining Chamber or in the Throne Room and would gift them each with a ladle of white and red honey-mead.

As for the commoners, they also would prepare themselves to greet the Feast with joy and devout preparedness and expectation, spending the eve of the Feast in prayer and in God-pleasing activities.

On the very Feast of the Nativity itself, the Tsar' attended the Utrenya [Matins] service in the Dining Chamber, or in the Golden Palace. When the peal of the bells would announce the beginning of the Liturgy, he would go out into the Dining Chamber, where he then would await the arrival of the Patriarch and other men of the cloth. In the front corner, a "place" was set for the Gosudar', and next to him, a chair for the Patriarch. The Patriarch, preceded by the cathedral protopopes, who bore the cross and the holy water, and accompanied by the clergy, would approach the Gosudar' to laud Christ and to felicitate him [i.e., the Gosudar'] upon the occasion of the Feast.

Having seen off the Patriarch, the Gosudar' would array himself in royal garb, in which he would walk to the cathedral for the Liturgy. After the Liturgy, having exchanged his attire into his usual dress for going out, the Gosudar' would return to the palace, where a festive table would be set "for the Patriarch, the authorities, and the boyars." With this, the Christmas festivities would come to a close.

On the day of Christ's Nativity, and during other great feastdays, as well, the pious Tsars of Russia would make a so-called "secret excursion" to the prisons and the poor-houses, where from their own hands they would distribute alms to the prisoners, to captives, to the lame, and to all those who were impoverished and needy. The same sort of alms would be distributed by the Tsars on the Eve of the Nativity, early in the morning of the day prior to the Feast.

The people would comport themselves with decorum and good behavior during the holy days of the Christmas season; and, with very few exceptions, there would be no drunkenness or wild and loose behavior, whether at home or on the streets.

The rich and wealthy folk, during those days, would set aside a bountiful bit of largesse for their poor brethren from out of their abundance, and they would act in such a fashion that their left hand, in accordance with Christ's commandment, frequently would not know what their right hand was doing (Matt. 6, 3). The majority would spend the holy days in salvific works: the reading of the Word of God, and in peaceful, soul-profiting conversations; and it was even customary for the adults to go from house to house and to laud Christ. It was clearly evident that a Great Day was being celebrated in Holy Rus' the Nativity of Christ, the Saviour of the world.

Translated into English by G. Spruksts from the Russian text of "Rozhdestvenskiya torzhestva v drevenei Moskvye" ["Nativity Solemnities In Ancient Moscow"], as it appeared in "Pravoslavnaya Rus'" ["Orthodox Rus'"], Vol. 68, No. 24 (1573), 15/28 December, 1996. English-language translation copyright (c) 1999 by The St. Stefan Of Perm' Guild, The Russian Cultural Heritage Society, and the Translator. All rights reserved.

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