By Jonathan J. Kalmakoff
For over three centuries, Doukhobors have celebrated Christmas, a festival commemorated annually by Christians across the globe. As we once again make ready to do so, it is essential to remind ourselves how this holiday is understood in Doukhobor religious philosophy, how it differs in key aspects from that of other Christian denominations, as well as the Doukhobor cultural and folk traditions associated with Christmas.
Since the introduction of Christianity to Russia in 988 AD, Rozhdestvo Khristovo or ‘the Nativity of Christ’ (Christmas) was celebrated by the Orthodox Church to remember the birth of Jesus Christ. It was traditionally observed under the Julian (Old) Calendar, which ran thirteen days behind the Gregorian (New) Calendar, putting it on January 7th rather than December 25th when it is now commonly observed.
To the Orthodox, Jesus Christ was the divine Son of God incarnate, born to the Virgin Mary by immaculate conception through the Holy Spirit. That is, he was considered the literal, supernatural embodiment of God on earth, having taken on human body and human nature, who performed miracles, cured the sick and raised the dead.
The Orthodox celebration of Rozhdestvo Khristovo was preceded by a forty-day fast, during which meat, dairy products and eggs were not eaten, and parishioners engaged in prayer and charity. When the festival finally arrived, church attendance was compulsory by law.[i] On the evening of Christmas Eve, parishioners attended the church liturgy service, whereafter they went home and ate a meal of twelve meatless dishes. That night, they returned to church for an all-night vigil to observe Jesus’ birth. After hours of standing (the Orthodox church had no seats) and praying, the priest led a procession out of the church, with the parishioners carrying icons and candles led by the priest burning incense in a censer. They circled the building until midnight, after which they returned home. On Christmas morning they once again returned to the church to attend the nativity liturgy service after which they went home for feasting and merriment.
Doukhobor Repudiation of Orthodox Christmas
During the mid to late 1700s, while the Doukhobors were still living among Orthodox Russians, they outwardly continued to celebrate Rozhdestvo Khristovo in the obligatory manner. Some went to church for appearances’ sake; while others made excuses to not attend at all. At home, they observed the festival with simple moleniye (‘prayer meetings’) followed by visits among fellow believers.
However, by this time, Rozhdestvo Khristovo had already acquired an inner, spiritual meaning and significance among Doukhobors that differed substantially from that of their Orthodox neighbours, and which was founded on dramatically different ideas concerning God and Christ.
They ceased to believe that the Christmas fast offered any spiritual advantage to the soul; for true fasting was not in abstaining from food but from vice and gluttony. Attending the church at Christmas was not essential to salvation, for they believed the ‘true’ church was not built by human hands – it was spiritual, invisible and within us. The priest’s conduct of Christmas mass was unnecessary, for they understood the Spirit of God resided in the soul of every person and could be directly understood and interpreted – without need of an intermediary – by listening to the voice within.
Indeed, Doukhobors came to view the Orthodox observance of Christmas – with its complex and elaborate ritual, Slavonic chanting, burning of incense, lighting of candles, bowing and crossing, as well as the resplendent robes of the priest and the richly adorned church with stained glass windows, gold candelabras and crucifixes, icons, sacred relics and ornately decorated domes – to be a contrived, outward sensory and material experience that served only to distract from a true, inner spiritual understanding of the holiday.
What is more, they believed that the Orthodox depiction of Christ’s birth and existence as something ‘mystical’, ‘superhuman’, ‘supernatural’ and ‘otherworldly’ was an artificial embellishment introduced by the church in order to mystify and confound its followers as to his true nature.
Christ and Christmas as Understood by Doukhobors
According to Doukhobor belief, Jesus was neither immaculately conceived nor born of a virgin, nor was he the literal Son of God incarnate in human flesh. Rather, he was an ordinary mortal man, born to an ordinary woman named Mary. In the physical sense, Jesus was no different from other men. In the spiritual sense, however, God chose Jesus as his anointed one by endowing him with divinely-inspired, extraordinary spiritual intelligence in his soul, lucid and enlightened beyond that of his fellow man.[ii] Because of this, Jesus was able to attain the highest, purest, most perfect understanding of God’s Law, and was therefore the Son of God, a man, but not God himself.
Doukhobors believed that Jesus’s enlightened teachings and life revealed mankind’s true meaning and purpose, which was to fulfill God’s Law – to love God with all of one’s heart, soul and mind, and to love one’s neighbor as one’s self. God’s Law was manifested in Jesus through his loving attitude toward other people.[iii] The role of his followers, Doukhobors believed, was to emulate Christ by living, as he did, according to God’s Law, to strive to follow his example, and thus be saved through their own works.[iv]
For Doukhobors, then, Christmas marks the day when the world was given a child to lead the world through God’s Law to peace on earth – good will among men. Doukhobors celebrate it as a sign of honour and glory for Jesus Christ.[v] We observe this occasion during all the days of our life as we endeavor to emulate him in our own actions.[vi]
Doukhobor Christmas Customs in Russia
Once Doukhobors openly rejected the Orthodox Church and its teachings in the late 1700s and early 1800s, they discarded many Orthodox feast days as being unnecessary and superfluous. However, they continued to celebrate Rozhdestvo Khristovo as an important holiday in accordance with their own beliefs and interpretations. In doing so, they adapted some of the Christmas holiday rituals and customs from the Orthodox, imbuing them with new meaning and significance.
Both during their settlement along the Molochnaya River near the Sea of Azov (Molochnye Vody) from 1801-1845 and in the Caucasus (Zakavkaz) from 1841-1899, Doukhobors are recorded as having celebrated Christmas over a three day period commencing January 6th, being Christmas Eve under the Old (Julian) Calendar.[vii]
On Christmas Eve, the men performed their daily agricultural chores while the women cleaned the house and baked, cooked and prepared food for the upcoming Christmas feast.[viii] At dinner, Doukhobor families ate twelve meatless dishes, a tradition retained from Orthodoxy, which might include any of the following dishes: borshch (cabbage-based soup), vareniki (boiled dumplings with savory fillings), lapshevniki (‘baked noodles’), pyure iz fasoli (‘mashed beans’), rybnyi kholodets (pickled fish), kvashenye ogurtsy (pickled cucumbers), kartoshniki (‘mashed potatoes’), pyrohi (‘baked savory pies’) and pyroshki (‘baked sweet tarts’), bliny (‘pancakes’), holubtsy (‘cabbage rolls’), kvashenaya kapusta (‘sauerkraut’), vinaigrette (‘salad’), kasha (‘rice porridge’), uzvar (homemade fruit juice), and always, kutya (a boiled wheat dish sweetened with honey).[ix] In the evening, grandmothers recited psalms while the family gathered to listen.[x]
At midnight on Christmas Eve, Doukhobor villagers assembled at a common dwelling or prayer home to hold a moleniye (‘prayer meeting’).[xi] The Christmas moleniye traditionally began with the Doukhobor psalm, Narodilsya nam Spasitel (‘Our Savior was Born’)[xii] which reads as follows:
“Our Savior is born, an Enlightener to the whole world. Sing praises to Him. All the world glorifies Him eternally. Rejoice ye, prophets who have the power of prophesizing, those who are with their oath! The Savior is coming at the last moment. Sing praise to Him, in joyous sweet songs, sing and play to Him. A star is travelling from the East to the place of the new-born prophet. The angles are singing in unison, expressing their love with the sound of their voices. Animals announce with their voices to the shepherds that a miracle has happened. There are clear signs announcing the birth of Christ. Three Wise Men bring Him the most precious gifts; gold frankincense and myrrh. The Father of the future ages offers you rich gifts. He came here to redeem the poor mankind. Eternal God was born and has taken human flesh. Glory be to our God.”[xiii]
Early Christmas morning, Doukhobor villagers again gathered for moleniye to worship, then returned home.[xiv] The adults would not eat breakfast and would carry out their morning chores.[xv] Children were given nuts or fruit as a special treat. Throughout the afternoon, Doukhobors would stroll through the village streets, singing psalms and greeting friends and neighbours,[xvi] with the following customary greeting: Na zdorov’ye! (‘To Health!’), to which the customary reply was Slava Bohu! (‘Thank God!’).[xvii]
Later, the entire family would sit down to enjoy Christmas dinner, which typically consisted of the same dishes enjoyed the night before; however, meat dishes such as roast goose, chicken or pork were also included.[xviii] In the evening, the adults would visit or host relatives and friends while the young people enjoyed themselves at vecherushki (‘parties’).[xix] Often, the young people would dress up and masquerade about the village, an ancient Russian folk custom.[xx]
The third and final day of the Christmas celebration (today, Boxing Day) was spent in much in the same manner – with merry visiting, singing and feasting throughout the village.
Doukhobor Christmas Commemoration in Canada
These Christmas traditions continued to be practiced, without change, through the 20th century to the present day by the Doukhobors of Gorelovka, Georgia and surrounding villages. However, among the Doukhobor followers of Peter Vasil’evich Verigin, several significant changes were made to the Christmas celebration after 1887.
First, in November 1894, those Doukhobors stopped eating meat in accordance with the teachings of Verigin, then in exile in the Russian Far North, brought back by his messengers to his followers in the Caucasus.[xxi] Thereafter, no meat (including fish) was consumed as part of the Christmas feasting.
Second, following their migration to Canada in 1899, the Doukhobors initially continued to celebrate Christmas as they had in Russia, over a three-day period according to the Julian (Old) Calendar. In January 1901, the Swan River Star reported, “The Doukhobors appear to know how to celebrate Christmas. Their feast lasted three days and commenced on Jan. 6. They still use the old style of counting time.”[xxii] However, by 1903, the Winnipeg Free Press reported that “they have disregarded the Russian and adopted the Canadian calendar and are beginning to observe Canadian holidays and festivals.”[xxiii] Thereafter, the Doukhobors celebrated Christmas twelve days earlier in accordance with the Gregorian (Old) calendar, on December 24-26.
Third, at an all-village congress of the Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood held in Nadezhda village, Saskatchewan in December 1908, Doukhobor leader Peter V. Verigin, in an effort to modernize and simplify their worship, discarded many of the traditional rituals, psalms and feasts observed by the Doukhobors.[xxiv] Thereafter, Christmas continued to be observed within the Community, however, the celebration was paired down from three days to a day and a half, with worship services still held on Christmas Eve and Christmas morning, but with the feasting and revelry reduced to a more modest scale befitting that of Christ’s followers.[xxv] Some of these changes were also adopted by Independent Doukhobors who left Verigin’s Community, to greater or lesser degrees.
In the years that followed, new psalms and hymns were added to the existing repertoire of those traditionally sung during Doukhobor Christmas moleniye [xxvi] while the foodstuffs enjoyed at their Christmas feast varied according to local availability and economic conditions.[xxvii] However, the essence of the traditional Doukhobor Christmas celebration, as it evolved in the late 19th and early 20th centuries continued to be observed by many Canadian Doukhobors well into the 1950s, and indeed, to the present.
Although there was none of the ubiquitous commercialism associated with Christmas today, including notions of gift-giving, Santa Clause, Christmas trees and outdoor light displays, Christmas as traditionally understood and celebrated by Doukhobors was and is a most meaningful and anticipated event.
A previous version of this article was originally published in:
Doukhobor Christmas Prayer Service
To experience and participate in a traditional Doukhobor Christmas prayer meeting, contact your nearest Doukhobor society or organization to find in-person dates and times or whether online streaming of services are available.
Traditional Doukhobor Kut’ya Recipe
To prepare traditional Doukhobor Kut’ya like that mentioned above, see the following Doukhobor Kut’ya Recipe. This recipe was adapted from that shared by Doukhobor Vasily Stroyev and family, formerly of Troitskoye village, Bogdanovsky region, Georgia, now residing in Markevichevo village, Shiryaevsky district, Odessa region, Ukraine.
[i] In Imperial Russia, receiving the Orthodox sacraments and attending church on Sundays and feast days was compulsory by law: see for example, M. Raeff, Imperial Russia, 1682-1825 (Michigan, University of Michigan, 1971); D. Longley, Longman Companion to Imperial Russia, 1689-1917 (New York: Pearson Education Limited, 2000).
[ii] Regarding the Doukhobor belief in Jesus, born a man, see: Bonch-Breuvich, Vladimir Dmitr’evich, Zhivotnaya Kniga Dukhobortsev (St. Petersburg: V.M. Volf, Sib. Nevskiy Pr., 1909), Psalms 1 (Q/A 3), 7 (Q/A 10), 12 (Q/A 6 and 8, 64, 71, 73, 85, 88, 94 and 375.
[iii] Regarding the Doukhobor understanding of Jesus as a keeper of God’s Law, see: Zhivotnaya Kniga, ibid, Psalms 2 (Q/A 14, 15 and 16), 4 (Q/A 7), 5 (Q/A 17), 7 (Q/A 11 and 12), 8 (Q/A 24, 25, and 26), 9 (Q/A 24), 47 (Q/A 1) 59 (Q/A 4), 185, 373 and 374.
[iv] Regarding the Doukhobor understanding of salvation through emulating Christ, see: Zhivotnaya Kniga, supra, note ii, Psalms 1 (Q/A 1), 2 (Q/A 31, 71), 3 (Q/A 79), 5 (Q/A 44), 9 (Q/A 45), 11 (Q/A 56), 14 (Q/A 5), 65, 67, 69, 74, 96, 137, 157, 170, 176, 192, 210, 217, 227, 229, 237, 277, 300, 311, 316, 319, 320, 333, 375, 384, 385 and 415.
[v] Zhivotnaya Kniga, supra, note ii, Psalm 383.
[vii] Novitsky, Orest Markovich. Dukhobortsy: Ikh Istoriia i verouchenie (Kiev, 1882) at 254-255.
[viii] Stroev, Vasily (Tula, Russia), correspondence with the writer, November 25, 2020.
[ix] Stroev, ibid; Svetlana Inikova., Holidays and Rituals of Doukhobors in the Caucasus (Doukhobor Genealogy Website); Linda Osachoff (Canora, SK), correspondence with the writer, December 18, 2020.
[x] Stroev, supra, note v.
[xi] Stroev, ibid; Inikova, supra, note vi; Goncharova, Lyubov. Malaya Sibir’ – Duhoboriya. (Bryansk, 2012 at 278); Lyubov Goncharova (Moscow, Russia), correspondence with the writer, December 20, 2020.
[xii] Народился нам Спаситель, Goncharova, ibid.
[xiii] Vladimir Dmitr’evich Bonch-Breuvich, Book of Life of Doukhobors (Translated Version by Victor O. Buyniak) (Saskatoon, Doukhobor Societies of Saskatchewan, 1978), Psalm 340.
[xiv] Stroev, supra, note v; Inikova, supra, note vi.
[xv] Inikova, ibid.
[xvi] Novitsky, supra, note iv; Stroev, supra, note v; Inikova, supra, note vi.
[xvii] Stroev, ibid.
[xviii] Stroev, supra, note v.
[xix] Inikova, supra, note vi.
[xx] Inikova, ibid.
[xxi] Grigory Verigin, Ne v Sile Bog, a v Pravde. (Paris, Dreyfus, 1935), chapter 10.
[xxii] Swan River Star, January 9, 1901.
[xxiii] Winnipeg Free Press, April 6, 1903.
[xxiv] Minutes of Community meeting, 1908 December 15, Nadezhda village. (SFU Item No. MSC121-DB-025-002); Letter from Peter Vasil’evich Verigin to Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy dated February 2, 1909 in Gromova-Opulskaya, Lidia, Andrew Donskov, and John Woodsworth, eds. Leo Tolstoy–Peter Verigin Correspondence (Ottawa, Legas: 1995) at 87-88; Letter from Ivan Evseyevich Konkin to Vladimir Dmitr’evich Bonch-Breuvich dated February 12, 1909 in Zhivotnaya Kniga, supra, note ii.
[xxv] Wendy Voykin (Castlegar, BC), correspondence with the writer, December 18, 2020.
[xxvi] For example, some of the Doukhobor psalms and hymn traditionally sung at Christmas moleniye in Brilliant, British Columbia include: Psalms: Chistaya Deva Mariya; Rechyot Khristos Uchenikam Svoim; Vysoko Zvezda Voskhodila. Hymns: Kto v ubogikh yaslyakh spit; Nyne vse vernye v mire likuyut; Dnes’ my likuem v kupe vospevaem; Vot Spasitel’ s nebes k nam soshyol; Vnov’ Khristos narodilsya; Vspomnim te slova Khrista; Tikhaya noch’, divnaya noch’; Khristos v Tebe dusha nashla ( New Year’s to the tune of Auld Lang Syne). Very special thanks to Mike and Mary Kanigan of Ootischenia, BC for sharing this list with the writer, via Wendy Voykin.
[xxvii] For instance, it is doubtful whether the Doukhobors had the luxury of enjoying all the foodstuffs mentioned for their Christmas feast during the hardships of their early settlement in Saskatchewan after 1899 and in British Columbia after 1908.