By Father Konstantinos Koutroubas
The Nativity (Christmas) Fast begins on November 15. It is a 40 day period that lasts until December 25 with the Divine Liturgy of Christmas morning. Because of the celebration of Christmas, there is no fasting from December 25 through January 4 every year. On January 5, the Eve of Epiphany (Theophany), there is a strict day of fasting in preparation for the feast of Theophany on January 6, the day we celebrate the Baptism of Christ.
Fasting is a necessary spiritual discipline of our Church. It is not an end in and of itself, but it is a crucial spiritual weapon that nonetheless must be accompanied together with prayer, almsgiving, repentance, love, forgiveness, and participation in the liturgical life of the Church. It is my hope and prayer that we also take advantage of the opportunity to also go to confession during this time of the year as we prepare for the celebration of Christmas. Confession is also a necessary weapon for our spiritual lives. Priests have a practice to go to their spiritual fathers during the Nativity Fast for confession, so the priests are not suggesting something that we ourselves would not attempt to do.
We are both body and soul as human beings. What we do with our bodies has an effect on our soul. We fast, that is, we abstain, from certain foods and avoid gluttony nevertheless in order to remember that ultimately we are dependent upon God for our physical sustenance. We fast so we can find it easier to pray.
We fast in order to be more spiritually focused. We fast from food in order to help us to fast from sin, so that, as we watch what goes into our mouth, we also watch what comes out of our mouth. We fast from certain foods, which are not evil in and of themselves, in order to help us cultivate discipline and self-control, in order to help us say no to the more difficult things that we must say no to. Fasting was practiced in the Old Testament. It was practiced and encouraged by Christ Himself. It was practiced by the Saints. Fasting is also physically healthy.
For fasting in general, follow the guidance of your spiritual father, the priest you go to for confession. Do not neglect to fast, as we cannot neglect fasting, but talk to your spiritual father to help with guidance in how to go about things. We do not lower the Church’s standard. The standard stays the standard, but perhaps we have to work at reaching that standard if we are not there yet. That can take some time. And even if we are there at the standard, we must be vigilant in cultivating humility and not passing judgment on others so as to not make our fasting futile.
The Nativity Fast is not as strict as the Fast of Great Lent or the Panagia’s Fast in August. During the Nativity Fast, we do not partake of meat, eggs, and dairy. Fish is allowed to be eaten every day except Wednesdays and Fridays, from November 15th until December 12th (feast of Saint Spyridon). Fish is also allowed on the feast of the Entrance of the Theotokos, which falls on November 21st, no matter what day of the week it falls on.
Regarding when to stop eating fish, instead of Saint Spyridon’s feast, some say eat until December 15 (feast of Saint Eleftherios) or until December 17 (feast of Saint Dionysios of Zakynthos). Regarding the fish and which day to end, follow the guidance of your spiritual father.
Shellfish (clams, kalamari, octopus, mussels, scallops, etc) are allowed during the Nativity Fast, even on Wednesday and Friday.
If we are fasting strictly, we also do not use olive oil on Wednesdays and Fridays. This is the Church’s standard. We can use olive oil and wine on Wednesday or Friday on certain feast days when they fall on Wednesday and Friday.
Olive oil is allowed on Saturdays and Sundays. Holy Saturday is the only Saturday of the year when we fast from olive oil.
Also, on Thanksgiving Day here in America, many Orthodox clergy say it is okay to have a fast-free day on Thanksgiving in order to have turkey. Some clergy might prefer to have fish instead. Follow whatever your spiritual father says.
May you have a spiritually beneficial remainder of the Nativity Fast, and as Panagia gave birth to our Lord in the flesh and laid Him in a manger, may Christ the Lord be born in the manger of our hearts!