December is the fourth month of the liturgical year in the Byzantine Rite. This article covers the most important liturgical aspects (especially the singing of the Divine Liturgy) of the days from December 1 through December 24; the remainder of the month will be described in a second article. See the online menaion and the Lectionary for the hymns and readings of each day.

The feast of Saint Nicholas

On December 6, we celebrate the feast of holy father Nicholas, archbshop of Myra in Lycia (along the southwest coast of modern Turkey). Sometimes called simply "Saint Nicholas"), he was a Christian bishop of the early 4th century who attended the first Ecumenical Council at Nicaea in 325 AD. He was also famous for his charity, his care for his people and for the poor, and for miracles that occurred as a result of his prayers; that is why he is also called Nicholas the Wonder-worker.

From early times, Saint Nicholas' fame became widespread in both the Christian East and West (he was particularly invoked by sailors) and he could rightly be called the "patron saint" of all Byzantine communities, since by tradition his icon is one of the four principal icons on a Byzantine iconostasis, along with the icons of Our Lord, the Theotokos, and the patronal saint of the temple. (We sometimes use the word "temple" to mean a particular church building.) Together with the apostles, he is commemorated every Thursday, and many churches are named after him.

Like the feast of Saint Demetrius (September 26) and the Archangel Michael (November 8) this is a vigil-rank feast (Vigil feast). In monasteries, an all-night vigil would be conducted, and in the ideal case, parishes would celebrate Vespers with Litija on the eve of the feast, followed by Matins and the Divine Liturgy on the feast itself. The complete service of Vespers for this feast is included on the MCI Recordings page.

For this feast, the hymns of the Divine Liturgy can be found on pages 274-276 of our Divine Liturgies book:

There are a number of beloved spiritual songs in honor of saint Nicholas, of which the best known is O who loves Nicholas the saintly (O kto kto). In keeping with our chant tradition, this melody was used as the basis for a setting of the Cherubic Hymn, along with the other hymns sung to the same melody (the acclamation, "We praise you, we bless you") and the Communion Hymn. See Singing the Divine Liturgy: The Cherubikon for an explanation of how this works.

Music for the O kto kto setting of the Cherubic Hymn and "We praise you, we bless you" is provided along with the propers in the Divine Liturgy book for December 6:

This same melody is also employed for the Communion Hymns through December 24. This does not mean that parishes and cantors are required to use this melody; they are given here to make the music available. Other melodies for the Cherubic Hymn, acclamation, and Communion Hymn may be used if desired.

It is perhaps worth pointing out that another hymn to the saint, O father Nicholas (Otce Nikolaje), which shares a melody with the hymn to the Mother of God, Rejoice, O purest Queen (Radujsja Carice), is the basis for the "E" setting of the Cherubic Hymn found on pages 46-47 of our Divine Liturgies book. This setting is sometimes used only on weekdays or omitted entirely because it is so short. But if sung at a moderate tempo (not too fast) it may be very appropriately used for the feasts of the first part of December, especially if "O father Nicholas" is sung before the Liturgy.

Other saints' feasts in December

On December 5, we celebrate the feast of Saint Sabbas the Sanctified (incorrectly listed in our Liturgikon or priest's book as "Sabbas the Sanctifier"), who was the founder in 483 AD of a monastery near Jerusalem and the author of its rule of life. This monastery was enormously influential in the development of Byzantine Liturgy, especially the offices of the daily cycle, and to this day our order of services is called the Typikon of Saint Sabbas.

If Saint Nicholas is the patron of all Byzantine communities, then Saint Sabbas could rightfully be called the patron saint of Byzantine liturgy, and that is probably why his commemoration is a vigil-rank feast (Vigil feast).

There are two polyeleos feasts (Polyeleos feast) in the first part of December. Remember that this is the lowest class of major feast day; Great Vespers is celebrated on the eve of the feast, followed by festal Matins and Divine Liturgy in the morning. One of these polyeleos feasts is modern, and one is quite old:

When a polyeleos or vigil feast falls on a Sunday, the hymns for the feast are sung together with those of the Sunday; that is why you will sometimes see saints' hymns in the MCI leaflets for the Sunday Divine Liturgy. Whenever this happens, take note; the Church is pointing to something she wishes us to notice and remember.

In December, as we prepare for the feast of the Nativity of Christ , we also commemorate a number of the Old Testament prophets who foretold His coming:

This is the same prophet Daniel who was cast into a lion's den (Daniel 6), while the three young men (called "children" or "youths" in the liturgical tradition) were put into a furnace for their faith and miraculously survived unharmed. The king who ordered them killed looked into the furnace and saw that the young men were accompanied by "another, one like a son of man" who protected them from the flames. In Jewish tradition, this was said to be an angel, but Christian commentators have seen it as a figure of Christ. The hymn of the three young men (Daniel 3:56-88) is sung at Vespers on Holy Saturday, the beginning of the feast of the Resurrection of the Lord.

Finally, the month of December is rich with the feasts of martyrs, who are seen as witnesses of Christ before the world. For a complete list, see the Calendar of Saints.

The feast of the Maternity of Holy Anna

On December 8, we celebrate the feast of the Maternity of Holy Anna. Tradition tells us that the parents of the Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary were named Joachim and Anna, and that they were unable to have children. By the power of God, Anna conceived in the normal fashion. This feast-day celebrates the miracle, and how it anticipates and prepares for the even greater miracle of the Incarnation. In the troparion of the feast, we sing:

Today the bonds of barrenness are loosed, * for God has heard the prayers of Joachim and Anna. * He promised, beyond hope, the birth of their godly daughter. * The Indescribable, himself, born of her as a mortal, * commanded us through the angel to sing to her: * Rejoice, O woman full of grace, * the Lord is with you.

The hymns of the feast show the origin of the Mother of God as a daughter of the Jewish people, as well as the mother of the Church that is to be; that is why the prokeimenon and Alleluia of the feast are not the usual ones for the Theotokos, but these instead:

Prokeimenon, Tone 4 (Ps. 67:36,27). God is wondrous in his saints, the God of Israel
V. In the churches bless God; from Israel's wellsprings bless the Lord.

Alleluia , Tone 1 (Ps. 36:39,40). Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!
V. The salvation of the just is from the Lord; he is their protector in time of distress.
V. The Lord will help them and deliver them and rescue them from sinners and save them, for they have hoped in him.

In the later Western tradition, this feast came to be called the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Under this title, the Theotokos is the particular patron of the United States, and so the feast was moved (see below) to correspond to the date of the feast on the Roman calendar, so that Roman and Byzantine Catholics can celebrate this patronal feast together.

The history of this feast is somewhat complicated. In the Orthodox tradition, it is celebrated on December 9. This is one day less than an exact nine months before the feast of the birth (nativity) of the Mother of God on September 8. In this way, the Church points out to us what while Christ is perfect (with exactly nine months from the feast of his Incarnation to the feast of his Nativity), the Theotokos, while sinless by the grace of God, is till human like us. (We celebrate the conception of one other saint, John the Forerunner and Baptist; the interval from the feast of his conception to that of his birth is ninth months plus one day.)

In the late 19th century, among our Ruthenian forebears in Europe, the original feast of the Maternity of Holy Anna was elevated from a minor feast to a major one, probably due to the Roman Catholic emphasis on the Immaculate Conception. A new office for the feast was composed by the famous liturgist Father Isidore Dolnitsky, and the original office for the Maternity of Holy Anna became the pre-festive office on December 8. There were also seven post-festive days, resembling a Roman liturgical octave.

With the reform of the Ruthenian liturgy in the 1940's, which eliminated a variety of Latinizations, the post-feast was eliminated, leaving the pre-feast on December 8, and the feast itself on December 9 under its original name, "the maternity of holy Anna."

Meanwhile, in the United States, a decision was made to keep the feast together with Roman Catholics, who celebrate the Immaculate Conception on December 8. This is why our annual Typikon gives two different orders of service: one with the prefeast and feast of the Maternity on December 8/9 (Orthodox usage), and one with the pre-feast and feast on December 7/8 (Ukrainian and Ruthenian Catholic usage).

Like the feasts of the Nativity and Entrance of the Theotokos, the feast of the Maternity of Holy Anna has a one-day pre-festive period, with its own troparion and kontakion. Here is the troparion, found on page 277 in the Divine Liturgies book:

Today the beginning of our salvation is conceived in a barren womb; and Anna rejoices with Joachim.
Adam rejoices to be freed, and, with them, we also begin our hymn:
Rejoice, O woman full of grace, the Lord is with you.

The kontakion is the same as the pre-festive one for the Nativity of the Theotokos.

The Maternity itself is kept as a vigil-rank feast, and the hymns of the Divine Liturgy can be found on pages 277-280:

Since this is a vigil feast rather than a great feast, there are no post-festive days.

The Nativity Fast continues

The pre-Christmas fast of forty days, which began on November 15, continues into December. During these days, we frequently hear reminders of the approaching feast of the birth of Christ. For example, at the end of the dismissal hymns (aposticha) at Vespers for the feast of Saint Nicholas, we sing:

O Virgin without husband, from where do you come?  * Who gave you birth; who is your mother?  * How can you cradle the Creator in your arms? * How did you accomplish virgin-birth? * Most pure Lady, we see in you great wonders,  * awesome mysteries fulfilled on earth. * We shall prepare a worthy cave for you.  * We shall ask the heavens for a star. * We shall ask the Magi to come from the east to the west * to behold your newborn Child in a manger,  * to behold the Savior of all.

See also the article on the Christmas Fast for more about our liturgical preparation for the birth of Christ.

The Sundays before the Nativity

The feast of the Exaltation of the Cross (September 14) had special hymns for the Sundays before and after the feast. The feast of the Nativity of Christ has two such preparatory Sundays.

On the Second Sunday before the Nativity, also called the Sunday of the Forefathers, we recall the holy men and women who lived under the Old Covenant, and looked forward to the coming of the Messiah. But we also receive a warning that everyone who looks forward to the Messiah must be prepared to receive him: in the Gospel at the Divine Liturgy (Luke 14:16-24), we hear our Lord tell the parable of a feast to which those who were first invited, did not come - and how the master ordered the house to be filled with those who were not, at first, invited.

The hymns at the Divine Liturgy for this Sunday are on pages 281-282 of our Divine Liturgies book. After the Sunday troparion in the Tone of the Week, we sing:

The prokeimenon, which refers to "the God of our Fathers,"

Blessed are you and praiseworthy, O Lord, * the God of our Fathers, * and glorious forever is your name.

is sung on both Sundays before the Nativity, and also at the three Sundays of the Council Fathers (before Pentecost, in July, and in October). This means that in our tradition, "our fathers" has two different but connected meanings: our fathers and mothers in faith, in the Old Testament and now in the new; and our "spiritual fathers", the bishops and priests who have passed on the faith to us by teaching and example.

On these two Sundays, we also add a hymn in honor of the righteous at Communion ("Rejoice in the Lord, you righteous ones; praise from the upright is fitting.") It is always a good practice, when singing liturgical hymns, to consider the questions: Who are we singing to? What are we singing about, and why? In this case, the "righteous" are the great figures of the Old Testament, the patriarchs and holy men and women who looked forward to Christ.

As representatives of these holy men and women, the Byzantine tradition points to Daniel and three young men who served God in Babylon. Their feast day is December 17, and they are commemorated in the kontakion we sing on both the Second Sunday before the Nativity (December 11-17) :and the Sunday before the Nativity (December 18-24):

You did not worship a man-made image, O thrice-blessed youths. * You armed yourself with uncreated divinity. * You were glorified in the trial by fire. * Withstanding the flames, you stood and called out: * Hasten, O compassionate God, and hurry to help us in your mercy. * For you can do whatever you will.

as well as the troparion we sing on the Sunday before the Nativity:

Great are the accomplishments of faith: * the three holy youths rejoiced in the streams of fire as if in refreshing waters; * and Daniel the prophet shepherds lions like sheep. * Through their prayers, O Christ our God, save our souls.

On the Sunday before the Nativity, also called the Sunday of the Ancestors, we hear the genealogy of Jesus read at the Divine Liturgy (Matthew 1:1-25). The epistle praises the saints of the Old Testament for their faith, but says that in spite of that faith, they did not receive the promised Messiah. Instead, "God had made a better plan - a plan which included us" (Hebrews 11-40).

The hymns at the Divine Liturgy for this Sunday are on pages 285-287 of our Divine Liturgies book:

Remember that the kontakion, prokeimenon, and Communion Hymn are repeated from the Second Sunday before Nativity.

These are combined with the troparion for Sunday (in the Tone of the Week) and the Sunday Communion Hymn. And since this Sunday can also fall within the pre-festive days of Christmas (December 20-24), the hymns for these days may be added as well. This is one of the days that requires careful preparation for the singing of the Divine Liturgy; you may wish to print off the MCI propers leaflet from the Liturgical Calendar and use it as a guide.

The pre-festive days of the Nativity

Most great feasts have a single pre-festive day; the feast of the Nativity of Christ has five pre-festive days, namely December 20-24. As with other pre-festive days, each has a troparion and kontakion that anticipates the feast.

The pre-festive troparion from December 20-23 is:

Bethlehem, make ready, * Eden has been opened for all. * Ephrathah, prepare yourself, * for the Tree of Life has blossomed from the Virgin in the cave. * Her womb has become a spiritual paradise * in which divinity was planted. * If we partake of it we shall live and not die like Adam. * Christ is born to raise up the likeness that had fallen.

and the pre-festive troparion for December 24 is:

At that time Mary registered in Bethlehem * with the elder Joseph who was of the house of David. * She had conceived without seed and was with child, * her time to give birth had come. * They found no room at the inn, * but the cave became a pleasant palace for the Queen. * Christ is born to raise up the likeness that had fallen.

The pre-festive kontakion for December 20, repeated on December 24, is:

Today the Virgin is coming to the cave * to give birth to the eternal Word * in a manner beyond expression. * Let the world dance when it hears the news; * with the angels and shepherds glorify the eternal God * who chose to appear as a newborn child.

and the pre-festive kontakion for December 21-23 is:

As we see the One who holds the world in his hands * now wrapped in swaddling clothes in Bethlehem, * let us offer our hymns in anticipation to the one who gave him birth; * for with a mother's joy she cradles the Son of God.

Music for these hymns can be found on pages 283-287 of our Divine Liturgies book.

When one of these days falls on a weekday, then for the Divine Liturgy the pre-festive troparion and kontakion are sung with the hymns for the saint of the day. The Sunday before Nativity can fall either outside the pre-feast (on December 18-19) or on any of the pre-festive days (December 20-24), which accounts for the extreme complexity in the order of troparia and kontakia for this Sunday.

The vigil of the Nativity

The final pre-festive day for the feast of the Nativity is December 24. The liturgical services appointed for this day depend on the day of the week.

December 24 itself is referred to as the Vigil, which can also be somewhat confusing. Sometimes "vigil" means the evening before a feast (which, in the Byzantine tradition, is actually part of the feast itself, since the day starts at sundown.) But it can also mean the entire day before a feast. As a result, December 24 is sometimes called the "vigil day" of Christmas.

At sunset on December 24, we begin the celebration of the feast of the birth of our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ. The details for this final part of December can be found here.

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