Guest post by Sarah Wright, The Orthodox Mama
When my kids and I walked into Target a couple of days ago, we were immediately overwhelmed with the sounds and sights of “the holidays.” My seven-year-old son commented, “Didn’t we just have Halloween, Mom?” Yep!
During the months leading up to the Nativity of Christ, it seems that you can’t go anywhere without seeing Christmas decorations and hearing Christmas music. While the rest of the world is hurrying to get to Christmas, in the Orthodox Church we slow down. We enter into a time of preparation so we can fully appreciate the miracle of the Incarnation–God becoming man.
We do this by fasting: fasting from sin, from excess, from indulgence, and from selfish desires. This is pretty counter-cultural–especially before Christmas. One practical way that the Church helps us do this, and has for over one thousand years, is by establishing a fast from certain foods. Orthodox Christians abstain from meat, dairy, wine, and oil during the Nativity Fast, which lasts from November 15 until Nativity.
The Church calls us to prepare for the birth of our Lord through repentance, through a quieter and more reflective life, and through an emphasis on the spiritual disciplines. This means that the Nativity Fast isn’t the feast itself–it’s the hard work that takes place before the joy of the feast can be fully experienced.
It can be hard to focus on fasting and waiting when the world around us seems bent on celebrating with excess. But that is what we are called to do. How you choose to do this will depend upon your family situation, your ethnic background, and local traditions.
Some families wait until the Nativity to put up Christmas decorations and then spend the next 12 days enjoying them (hence the 12 days of Christmas!). Other families find vegan recipes that allow them to have Christmas goodies during the fast. As with all things, speak to your spiritual father about this matter.
Today I want to share with you a few thoughts and practical ideas to help you during this Nativity Fast. So, here are:
Tips for Fasting as a Family
When we became Eastern Orthodox eight years ago, I dove headfirst into the fasting traditions of the Church. I, like many converts, wanted to follow each guideline to the letter. And then, a few months later, we found out that I was pregnant with our first child. We were extremely excited but also perplexed. How was I supposed to fast now? And, once our new little one was born, would he be expected to fast?
We asked around in our parish–talking with our priest, our sponsors, and other families with small or grown children. And (surprise!) we received MANY different responses. There seemed to be no “one right way” to fast with children.
Instead our priest told us this, “Fasting is more than food. Teach your children how to fast with their actions and the food will follow.” It has taken me years to fully appreciate the beauty, simplicity, and depth of that statement.
Here are a few simple yet profound ideas for how that might look in your family:
1. Focus on the Spiritual Virtues During Fasting Periods
Do your children (like mine) seem to argue or complain more than you thought humanly possible? During the fasting period, your entire family can focus on the virtue that counters that sin–the virtues of kindness, gratitude, a peaceful spirit, love, joy, etc. Diligently talk about, search out wisdom from the Scriptures and Church fathers, praise examples of, and make a concerted effort to practice that virtue during the Fast. Fast from sin and practice virtue.
2. Abstain from “Food Pleasures”
If your children are young and a strict fast is not advisable, try fasting from food pleasures. Milk is important for small children, but is ice cream necessary? Some protein in the form of red meat may be beneficial to their growth, but is bacon or a steak the only way to do this? Simply by eliminating food excesses, young children can begin to understand some of the theology behind the Fast.
3. Practice a Modified Fast
Many families practice a modified fast during the Nativity Fast and other fasting periods. They may eliminate meat from their diets but keep dairy products. Or, They may make fasting dinners but allow milk and meat at breakfasts and lunches. Talk with your priest about ways to modify the fast.
4. Focus on the Spiritual Disciplines
Finally, in the Orthodox Church, fasting is always accompanied by the spiritual disciplines of prayer, almsgiving, and study. Like my priest said, “Fasting isn’t about the food.” It is not just about avoiding certain foods, it is about becoming more holy. During the Fast can you increase your family’s prayer rule or become more consistent with your prayer times? Will you find ways to give to those in need and serve others around you? What about reading spiritual books together or beginning a family Bible reading time? Any of these activities (and so many others) could be a wonderful way to fast as a family.
If you would like more tips for fasting as a family–plus recipes, kids’ activities, and more, I invite you to take a look at my new e-book entitled Seasons of the Faith: Helping Your Family Celebrate the Feasts and Fasts of the Church.
In this nearly 200-page book I share the background for each of the feasts and fasts, give practical ideas for celebrating each feast as a family, and share age-appropriate activities for both younger and older children. If you are looking for a way to integrate your faith with your family life, Seasons of the Faith can be a great resource.
As we enter into this Nativity Fast, let us slow down. Let us pause to repent, to pray, to fast, and to give. Let us truly prepare our hearts and our families to receive our Incarnate Lord.
About Sarah Wright, The Orthodox Mama
Sarah Wright is an Orthodox Christian, wife, mother of three little ones, teacher, and author. She runs the blog The Orthodox Mama, where she writes about faith, family, and frugal living. In her spare time, she loves to hike, watch old movies, and read as many books as she can!
Seasons of the Faith: A Review: I reviewed Sarah’s book, which she mentions at the end of her post. I think it’s a valuable resource for young families.
Pascha Parenting Tips: The midnight services of Pascha can seem daunting, especially if you’ve got little children, or children of any age with special needs. These suggestions can help you figure out what will work for your family.
Thoughts on Our House Blessing: My house, and my life, will never be perfect. But at Theophany, we ask God’s blessings on all of it.
Buy the Book: The Saint Nicholas Day Snow
Shoes or stockings? Horse or sleigh? Does St. Nicholas visit on December 6 or on Christmas Eve? Will a little girl’s prayer be answered? When Elizabeth has to stay at Catherine’s house, she’s worried about her grandmother, and worried that St. Nicholas won’t find her. The grownups, though, are worried about snow.