Why I’m doing the Eastern Nativity Fast

Detail from The Nativity, by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo

The bizarre chintz of “Halloween” and “Christmas” chocolates sitting beside each other on supermarket shelves in the middle of October is a sight which has become sadly familiar in recent years. In many ways it characterises the conundrum faced by Christians at this time of year; how to keep All Hallows’, Advent, and Christmastide holy in a secular society which has merged them into one gluttonous and materialistic three-month bacchanale, culminating in the orgy of New Year’s Eve and immediately tossed aside in the hangover of New Year’s Day.

In a sense the Church herself has not been especially helpful. The penitential character of Advent has been steadily watered down for centuries in the West to the point that I don’t recall ever being taught about it. Yet there is a beautiful symmetry between Advent and Lent which goes well beyond the use of violet and rose vestments at Mass. During Advent we await Christ’s birth in the Incarnation and during Lent his, and our, rebirth in the Resurrection. In both seasons we prepare ourselves by calling to mind and atoning for our sins — traditionally aided by some sort of fast. Gorging on chocolate, gingerbread lattes, and mulled wine seems a curious approach.

Yet it is also the case that fasting, even through Lent, is little encouraged by the Church anymore. Working for the London Borough of Barnet, I am consistently amazed at the frequency, and stoicism, by which Orthodox Jewish and Islamic colleagues fast; abstaining from all solids, and even water, from sunrise to sunset. This form of fast is not generally customary in orthodox Christianity but, all the same, it seriously shows up our paltry efforts today.

One of the blessings of the Universal Church, however, is the example set by our brothers and sisters in the Eastern Rite churches, which take fasting for 40 days during both Lent and the Nativity far more seriously. Here I have a personal connection as, although I was brought up in the Latin Rite, I was baptised and confirmed in the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC), and will be getting married at the UGCC Cathedral in Mayfair next year. In preparation, I have been learning more about the Byzantine Rite, and have decided this year to adopt the Nativity Fast as a personal devotion. The fast runs from 15th November to 24th December and seems an apt antidote to the gluttony of the season. As with Lent, I expect it will also make feasting with loved ones on Christmas Day all the more enjoyable.

For those intimidated by the ‘Black Fast’ of the Eastern churches, the Nativity Fast is considerably less austere, owing to the joyous nature of the Nativity. It is also something of a misnomer as it is, strictly speaking, abstinence rather than fasting (with the exception of Christmas/Nativity Eve, during which no solids should be eaten until the first star is visible in the evening sky). In a nutshell, one abstains from all meat and meat products, fish, eggs, dairy, oil, and wine. Oil and wine are allowed on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and on weekends, when fish is also allowed. How far one goes with the definitions is a source of spirited debate. Some include all seafood in the definition of ‘fish’ while others include all alcohol in the definition of ‘wine’ (as beer was often a staple drink in centuries past due to the scarcity of clean water, one can see why only wine was specified). One could also argue that dairy and meat alternatives are against the spirit, if not the letter, of the fast. But, either way, chocolate Advent calendars are definitely out!

If, like me, you feel the Nativity Fast might help you await the Incarnation of Our Lord more solemnly and purposefully this year, you can find a useful online guide here. You also only have to search ‘Nativity Fast recipes’ in Google to uncover a treasure trove of helpful Orthodox and Eastern Catholic cooking tips which the recent growth in veganism has done much to help. It won’t keep those garish chocolates off the shelves but it just might help you avoid them — at least until Christmas!