Second Christmas: Orthodox Holiday Today

Helen and John Reshetar still have their Christmas tree up - and it's not because they've forgotten to throw it out.

As members of the Holy Trinity Ukrainian Orthodox Church, they will celebrate Christmas today, as will members of several other Orthodox churches in the Puget Sound area.

At St. Sava Serbian Orthodox Church in Issaquah, about 70 families will gather for a Christmas liturgy.

Afterward, they will break the traditional fasting period by roasting a lamb and a pig and feasting for the rest of the day.

At the home of Ihnat and Zinaida Ponomarchuk, friends and relatives gathered yesterday before a church service at St. Nectarios American Orthodox Church near Northgate, where Ponomarchuk is a priest.

In a "holy corner" of their home, a sheaf of wheat bound together is placed to symbolize the gathering of the people in the church.

Orthodox Christians from Eastern-bloc countries say this year is particularly poignant for them, with the demise of the Soviet Union.

Many Ukrainian-Americans are jubilant; Russian-Americans are confident; and the Serbian-Americans, watching their former home involved in civil war, say they have so many emotions they can't pick one.

For the most part, though, Orthodox immigrants say they'll try to leave their politics at home during their Christmas celebrations.

"We try to keep this just a religious celebration," says Mike Jankovich, president of St. Sava Church.

In fact, many say they enjoy having Christmas nearly two weeks after the Dec. 25 holiday because it helps preserve the religious nature of Christmas.

"On the 25th, we might give gifts to children and that kind of thing, light the tree," said Helen Reshetar, who is Ukrainian-American. "For us, normally, it's a civil holiday."

But today, they will celebrate the "real" holiday, a "quiet, pious Christmas as it should be," she added.

"We have the best of the two holidays. We have all the joyous upheaval and to-do with the first Christmas . . . and once that's out of the way we can concentrate on a religious Christmas," said Reshetar. Some families keep the old tradition of saving gifts for New Year's Day, hung along with candy from a tree. And some give presents to children on St. Nicholas' Day, which for old-calendar Orthodox families is Dec. 19.

Many Orthodox churches have switched to the new calendar and observe Christmas Dec. 25.

But the Orthodox churches that still follow the old Julian calendar planned to hold a Christmas Eve service last night and a Christmas service today.

The Reshetars gathered last night with friends in a private home for a Christmas Eve celebration. Their church, the Holy Trinity Ukrainian Orthodox Church, has been without a full-time priest for several years and, because of bad health, a visiting priest wasn't able to conduct services this year.

Last night, many Orthodox families ate 12 vegetarian dishes, including a special mixture of white wheat, seeds, nuts and honey called "kutja.""We are always trying to keep our own tradition," said Alla Schauss, who attends St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Cathedral, which had services last night and this morning. "Religion for us is the most important thing around which we live. The church is everything for us."