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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russia to Make Christmas Glad With Song

Wednesday is Dec. 24 on the ancient Julian calendar, and Christmas is coming to Russian Orthodox churches and homes around the country. "Christ is born! Glorify Him!" choirs will sing joyfully Wednesday evening from the gilded cathedrals of Moscow and from small, dilapidated churches in the Russian countryside.

Each year on Jan. 6 churches are decorated with fir trees for special services rich with the music of choirs. A series of services culminates in the Nativity Mass, which starts shortly before midnight.

But festive and meaningful services start in the morning with the Royal Hours - called as such because in the Byzantine Empire this was when the emperor attended. During this service, which in most of Moscow's churches starts at 8 a.m., Old Testament prophesies of the Messiah's coming are read, along with New Testament readings.

The Royal Hours are immediately followed by the Vigil and then the Divine Liturgy of St. Basil the Great, during which many parishioners take communion.

It is at the end of this service that the Christmas hymn is sung for the first time: "Thy Nativity, O Christ our God, has shone to the world the light of wisdom! For by it, those who worship the stars, were taught by a star to adore Thee, the Sun of Righteousness, and to know Thee, the Orient from on high. O Lord, glory to Thee!"

The head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Alexy II, is presiding over the morning service in the basement church of Christ the Savior Cathedral near Kropotkinskaya metro station, before moving for evening services to his Bogoyavlensky, or Epiphany, Cathedral on Spartakovskaya Ulitsa.

The evening Vespers starts there, as in most other city churches, at 5 p.m., and the night service, comprising the Matins and Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, begins at 10 p.m. Patriarchal services, all of which are open to the general public, except for the invitation-only Kremlin service Jan. 8, are the most solemn ones and are accompanied by some of Moscow's best choirs. Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov will attend the midnight service in the Bogoyavlensky Cathedral, his press service announced Tuesday. It will be broadcast live by RTR television.

Among the churches renowned in Moscow for their good choirs are the Znamenskaya Church near Rizhskaya metro station, the St. Nicholas Church in Tolmachi, which is attached to the Tretyakov Gallery, and the Novodevichy Convent, where solemn episcopal services are led by Metropolitan Yuvenali, one of the highest-ranking Russian bishops.

For a more chamberlike atmosphere and delicate singing, there is the St. Tatyana Chapel of Moscow State University, which is on the corner of Mokhovaya Ultisa and Bolshaya Nikitskaya Ulitsa near Manezh Square.

The holiday repertoire of choirs in these churches consists largely of solemnly joyful polyphonic music written by Russian liturgical composers of the 19th and early 20th centuries, among them Bortnyansky, Dyagteryov, Zinoviev, Ostroglazov, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov and Chesnokov.

But ancient monastic chants, which originated from Byzantine-era Greek homophonic singing and flourished in Russia in the 14th through 17th centuries, are becoming more and more popular among Moscow's churchmen. The deep-voiced and vocally sophisticated male choir of the Novospassky Monastery on Krestyanskaya Ploshchad (nearest metros Marksistskaya and Proletarskaya) offers perhaps the best opportunity to hear this time-honored music. The night service at the Novospassky Monastery starts at 1 a.m., and the second Divine Liturgy is held at 10 a.m. Thursday.

Midnight services usually last from two to three hours and are in most cases timed so as to allow people to return home by metro, which runs on Christmas Eve until 2 a.m.

The only church in Moscow where Orthodox liturgies are celebrated in part in English is the St. Catherine Church on Ulitsa Bolshaya Ordynka. While lacking a midnight liturgy, it has services at 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. Wednesday and at 10 a.m. Thursday.

Christmas Eve, which falls on Jan. 6 in the Gregorian calendar, is the last and the strictest day of the Nativity Fast. The fast lasts for 40 days, during which observant Orthodox believers abstain from some foods - meat, egg and milk products -and earthly pleasures - sex and entertainment - in order to purify their souls.

The Russian name for Christmas Eve is ***Sochelnik*** - a word that derives from ***Sochivo*** - a special concoction of steamed wheat or rice grains with honey, nuts and raisins which is, according to a tradition still observed by some Orthodox Christians, the only food eaten to break the fast after the first star is seen in the sky.

Out of nearly 400 Orthodox churches in Moscow, the Nativity is the patron feast in only four. Among them is the 17th-century Church of the Nativity of Christ in Izmailovo (16 2nd Sovietskaya Ulitsa), which is one of the few churches that was never closed during the Soviet era and thus was able to preserve its rich internal decor and revered icons.The fifth Nativity temple in Russia's capital will be the giant Christ the Savior Cathedral, which was blown up in 1931 and has been rebuilt by the Moscow city government over the past four years. But the construction has not been completed, and this year's work is in question because of Russia's financial crisis and disagreements over the internal decoration.

Nonetheless, Patriarch Alexy said in his Christmas message, which was released Tuesday by the Moscow Patriarchate, that "with God's assistance" the main altar will be dedicated to Christ's nativity by the jubilee year of 2000. "Russia brings this majestic cathedral as a gift to our Lord for His most glorious Nativity," the patriarch said.

One of Moscow's old church traditions associated with Christmas is the ceremony of "patriarchal greetings," which takes place in the Epiphany Cathedral on Jan. 8. After a short service that starts at 5 p.m., anyone can stand in a long line in order to appear face to face with the head of the Russian church and exchange Christmas greetings.

For Orthodox Christian families, Christmas is largely an intimate home celebration, in which children are at the center of events. In the past several years, most parishes and even some secular organizations have resumed the pre-revolutionary tradition of holding children's festivals, which take place beginning Jan. 8. They usually involve a Christmas play, decorated fir tree and carol singing - traditions that made their way to Central Russia in the 18th century from Ukraine, which bordered the Roman Catholic world.