Friday, January 10, 2014

Stump the Priest: Fasting on the Eves of the Nativity and Theophany

Question: The Eves of Christmas and Theophany are called "strict fast days;" however, it appears that these days are also "wine and oil" days, and not just when they fall on Saturday or Sunday, but any day. At least this is so on calendars in the Slavic tradition. However, I do see that on the Greek Archdiocesan website, the Eve of Theophany, is counted as a fast without wine and oil despite it being a Sunday. So maybe the Greeks keep these days strictly by abstaining from wine and oil even on Sundays. But what does it mean for Slavic usage if it's a "strict fast day", but with wine and oil? 

There are different degrees of fasting, in terms of what may be eaten, but there are also various rubrics regarding at what point in the day we can eat something on fast days. But then sometimes the rubrics in the typikon are not very explicit, and so are capable of more than one interpretation. The Typikon is very explicit that when the Eves of Christmas or Theophany fall on a Saturday or Sunday, that it is not a strict fast. The Typikon says that when this happens, after the Liturgy we eat some bread and drink a cup of wine, and then have a fuller meal after Vespers. Whereas, when these days fall on week days, if health allows, we do not eat or drink anything until after Vespers. Even during Lent, wine and oil are always permitted on Saturdays and Sundays, because strict fasting is forbidden on those days. The exception to this is Holy Saturday, on which we do not eat until after the Vesperal Liturgy, which is according to the rubrics, the lattest Liturgy of the year, and then we have wine, but not oil, and may otherwise have a simple lenten meal. I suspect that the Greek practice is actually the same on this point, and that the Greek Archdiocesan website is just imprecise on this point.

On Holy Friday, the typikon actually calls for nothing to be eaten:

"On this Holy day neither a meal is offered nor do we eat on this day of the crucifixion. If someone is unable or has become very old and those unable to fast, he may be given bread and water after sunset. In this way we come to the holy commandment of the Holy Apostles not to eat on Great Friday" (Trans. Fr. Eugene Tarris, see

As is often the case, however, modern practice is generally more lenient, but this is the ideal.

Now as to whether or not wine and oil would be permitted on the Eves of Christmas or Theophany, the Festal Menaion notes "The Forefeast of Christmas (24 December) is observed as a fast, and neither animal products nor fish may be eaten. In the Greek use, wine and oil are not permitted, except when the Forefeast falls on Saturday or Sunday; but in the Slav use, wine and oil may be taken, whatever day of the week it may be" (Festal Menaion (Tr. Mother Mary and Archimandrite Kallistos Ware, Faber and Faber, London, 1984), p. 220).  There is a similar note for the Eve of Theophany (Festal Menaion, p. 313).

This difference seems to arise from the fact that the Typikon, while explicit on what is allowed when these days fall on Saturday or Sunday, is not explicit regarding what is allowed when these days fall on weekdays. But even though wine and oil are permitted according to Slavic practice on these days, when they fall on weekdays, both Greek and Slavic practice agree that eating and drinking should be postponed until the evening. It is a pious custom to await the appearance of the first star on Christmas Eve before eating a meal (See Bulgakov's Handbook for Church Servers, December 24th).

It is also a practice among Ukrainians, Poles, Carpatho-Russians, and many Russians (those living in the South, and Western parts of Russian) to eat a somewhat elaborate lenten meal on the Eve of Nativity, in which each dish has a symbolic meaning related to the the feast of the Nativity. This meal is often called "the Holy Supper."