I’ve been thinking about what it means to be Orthodox in America this December and it’s kind of making me chuckle. Forgive me, but we’re a little bipolar. Not in the medical sense, but insofar as we are vacillating between two states of mind, two cultures — you might say we are caught between Nativity and Christmas! I wouldn’t wish you a blessed Nativity today, I won’t call out, ‘Christ is born!’ when I see you, because the feast isn’t here yet. But I’ll surely grin at you and wish you a Merry Christmas, because we are already there. It’s Christmastime, the most wonderful time of the year — but it’s not Nativity yet.
Christmas in the United States is beautiful, but it doesn’t dance to an Orthodox beat. We’re supposed to fast for 40 days and then feast for 12 days. But in the US, the party is already going in early December; by now, the feast is in full swing with Christmas parties and caroling and cookie decorating. December 25th is really the grand finale — on Christmas Day, we finish Christmas and then we go back to the mall or we take our kids skiing or something. One last big party for New Years, and that’s it. Holidays are over and the diets begin — you might say that America fasts after it feasts. The Christmas treats come first, and dieting and exercise follow. In the Orthodox view, that’s not spiritually healthy. But this is where we live, and that’s how America does it. And we are Americans.
I am of two minds on the topic.
Sometimes, I get very focused on how annoyingly unorthodox American culture is. There’s a lot of focus on consumption and material blessings, and little to no interest in ascetism.
But you know, there’s also something really lovely about America at Christmastime. The weather is cold and bleak, but the people are bright and cheery. Everyone’s nice to each other, wrapping up gifts for kids they don’t know. Coffee shops are adding peppermint to their lattes. It’s kind of fun to decorate cookies.I love Christmas carols, and I am blown away that for this one holiday, we have an entire genre of music. It’s really the only one. 4th of July has patriotic songs, but there are no Easter carols, there’s no Thanksgiving soundtrack. But America has a complex and varied collection of Christmas music, and in December, it’s everywhere. I love it. I like Christmas movies. And I like the bright lights on the houses on a dark December evening, and I love how people take the time to do beautiful things with their families. This time of year, we MAKE time. We decorate trees and make little gingerbread houses and we go ice skating or whatever. Sure, it’s a lot of commercial nonsense. Sometimes it’s about Jesus and sometimes it’s just about love and warmth and hot cocoa. But you know what? It’s a pretty nice time of year. Even the super-Orthodox grouchy people have to admit, there’s a sweetness in it.
In the United States, we are Orthodox Americans, but we aren’t quite sure what that means. We aren’t sure how to do both.
Historically, we’ve been an immigrant church, and the Orthodoxy was associated with the immigrant culture. My husband grew up with American Christmas and Serbian Christmas, with American Easter and Serbian Easter. The American holiday was all candy and decorations, and the Serbian holidays were Orthodox, involving church and feasts and large beautiful gatherings of family and friends. The American culture and the immigrant culture might coexist in the same house, in the same heart, but there was a distinct separation between Americanness and Orthodoxy, in a cultural sense. The Orthodoxy belonged to the immigrant culture.
And the truth is that in a culture that has been Orthodox for one thousand or two thousand years, there are ways in which the faith really has seeped into national characteristics. It’s neat. A lot of the customs and traditions are just Orthodox, and America doesn’t have that. A lot of our customs are traditions are tied to Puritanism or capitalism or democracy, but they’re not Orthodox.
So we find ourselves here, today: Orthodox folks in America.We do still have immigrants among us, but we are a generation with many converts like myself, and also with Orthodox people who are the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of immigrants, so they have an immigrant heritage, but they are increasingly American. This Orthodox culture in America is changing and evolving. I think in about five hundred years, we’ll have a good sense of what it means to be an Orthodox American. Those people in the future will see that we were the generations who helped to establish the traditions and the understandings that will underpin that identity.
But our generations now, we twenty-first century people, we’re the ones in the middle, kind of feeling out what it means to be American Orthodox.
My generation was raised to feel a little skeptical about Americanness. After the Viet Nam war, I think it’s been common for educators to inculcate a certain skepticism about patriotism, to ask whether America behaves well internationally or lives up to its own declared values and principles. This generation is skeptical of our own nation and we don’t trust the traditional narrative of history as easily as previous generations may have. I’m not saying that’s bad or good, but it’s certainly a change, and ultimately, it is what it is, and this is where we are. Our generation is already conditioned to be a little leery of Americanness, and when we convert to Orthodoxy, that can intensify. We’re quick to see this nation’s faults, and to condemn its culture — somehow managing to ignore the fact that we are American; we are products of this culture. We think we sit apart and view it objectively, but we’re in it, and it’s not all bad.
So I think we have a lot of converts who want to convert away from Americanness and become something else, something thoroughly Orthodox — but we can’t put on Russianness or Greekness. We might learn some recipes and some dances, but we’re American. That combines with that immigrant sense of America as a culture foreign to Orthodoxy, and well, the various cradles and converts here in America just don’t always feel very comfortable in our skin.
Personally, over the past few years, I’ve struggled against the Christmas parties and a lot of the American Christmas stuff, trying to have a more Orthodox Nativity experience.
But this year, I want to figure how to bring them together. I want to appreciate the good parts of the American Christmas experience and bring them into our Orthodox experience. I’m tired of feeling bipolar, split between two things. (Some of that is inevitable of course — we are, after all — in this world but not of this world.) But when St. Herman went to Alaska, he found the aspects of the indigenous culture that were good and he baptized them into the church — and he worked to help the new converts lose the parts of their tradition that weren’t good. There was a sifting to be done, and a lot of translating. But the Aleuts who became Orthodox, they didn’t become Russian, they became a whole new thing. They’re Aleutian Orthodox, I suppose, with great love for Russians but not the same as Russians. That’s our task. It’s a long-term project, in which we sift and consider and try things out, and eventually we produce a culture, the American Orthodox culture.
So, each of us in our homes with our families this year will be establishing and renewing and cementing our American Orthodox Christmas traditions. In my house, there will be a tree and My Little Pony ornaments will hang next to icons of St. Nicholas.
This year, we’re doing a 40 day Jesse Tree throughout the fast — I’m writing it as we go, with an Old Testament story to be read aloud every day and some discussion questions, carrying us from the Garden of Eden to a manger in Bethlehem. I love this project — I love reading the stories with my kids and hearing them get excited about Moses and David, and I love the process of writing it. I’ve been submersed in the Old Testament, marinating in all of these amazing stories. Maybe if I get it finished on time, we’ll get it published for next year’s Nativity. Maybe five hundred years from now, it will be a VERY American Orthodox thing to do a Jesse Tree before Nativity? Who knows?
May God bless you this Christmas season, and when we celebrate His Nativity too!
Update 11/2016: The Jesse Tree book is written, but the illustrator is still working on it, and she’s doing a beautiful job. The book will not be released in time for this year’s fast, but watch for it as a new release from Sebastian Press in 2017.