How to impress as a holiday guest: Stranger in a Strange Land

October, 2017

It’s your first holiday season with your special somebody, and you’re invited to a traditional holiday celebration at their family home. You want to make the perfect first impression, so the pressure is on. But what happens if the home you’re visiting is not only full of people you don’t know but also of religious and cultural traditions you know nothing about? Worry not (or at least a bit less…); we’ve got a holiday “cheat sheet” of what to know when attending a Catholic Christmas dinner,
a Ukrainian Orthodox Christmas dinner and a traditional Hanukkah dinner.

A Catholic Christmas

For Catholics, Christmas is one of the most important celebrations of the year (next only to Easter). Christmas day commemorates the birth of Jesus Christ, and Christmas Eve is important because Jesus was believed to be born at midnight.

Midnight Mass

On Christmas Eve, December 24, many Catholic families attend midnight mass, a special church service that honours the nativity of Jesus. True to its name, the service usually starts around midnight and lasts about an hour-and-a-half. It’s perfectly acceptable to attend midnight mass as a non-Catholic, so if you’re invited and want to attend, go for it.

Tips for Attending Midnight Mass

Dress code: The dress code depends on the church. In some cases, a pair of jeans is acceptable; in others, more formal attire is expected. Ask your significant other for reliable advice before you close your closet door.

Collection basket: A collection basket will likely be passed around the pews during the service. The money goes towards the church’s operating costs. If you’re cool with that, bring a dollar or two to contribute.

Communion: For Catholics, receiving communion is a significant part of midnight mass because it spiritually and physically represents the receiving of Christ. Communion is meant only for practicing Catholics, so when the other churchgoers start lining up at the alter, quietly remain in your seat. If you do end up in the line, cross your arms over your chest when it’s your turn. The priest will recognize this gesture and offer you a blessing instead of communion.

Traditional Christmas Dinner

A traditional Catholic Christmas dinner is similar to what you’d find in many non-Catholic homes on Christmas day: turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce are the staples. Traditional Christmas treats include raisin or plum pudding, pumpkin or apple pie, shortbread, butter tarts and, of course, eggnog (often mixed with rum!).

Partaking in Prayer

Christmas dinner will likely begin with a prayer to acknowledge Jesus’ birth. One person will typically lead the prayer, while everyone at the table bows their heads. Even if you don’t share the family’s religious beliefs, consider quietly complying with this brief ritual to show respect.

A Ukrainian Orthodox Christmas

Like Catholic families, Ukrainian Orthodox families celebrate the story of Jesus’ birth at Christmastime. However, some Ukrainian Orthodox churches follow the ancient Julian calendar rather than today’s Gregorian calendar, meaning Christmas falls on January 7, not December 25.

Traditional Ukrainian Christmas Eve Dinner

For the Ukrainian Orthodox (and Ukrainian Catholics), Christmas day marks the beginning of celebration after a 40-day fast from meat, dairy and alcohol. That makes Christmas Eve dinner—or the Holy Supper—the last meal during the fasting period. The meal, therefore, is meatless, dairyless and boozeless. The Holy Supper, which traditionally begins when the first star is visible in the sky, includes 12 courses—one for each of Jesus’ apostles. Dinner starts with kutia (a sweet porridge made of wheat) and includes other traditional dishes such as kolach (braided bread), borscht (beet soup), pierogi (perogies), sauerkraut, stuffed cabbage and fish.

Christmas Day Dinner

Like the Holy Supper, Christmas dinner will include many traditional Ukrainian dishes, but this time, meat, dairy and alcohol are back on the table.

Ukrainian Orthodox Traditions

Carolling is a popular tradition and is often done after holiday meals. It is also customary to leave a plate on the table during dinner to recognize loved ones who have passed.

Partaking in Prayer

A Ukrainian Orthodox Christmas meal traditionally begins with a prayer. Afterward, the head of the household may anoint the people present with honey, making the sign of the cross on their foreheads and expressing good wishes for the new year. As a guest, consider graciously accepting the gesture.

Traditional Ukrainian Christmas Greeting

In Ukrainian homes, Merry Christmas works. If you’re feeling adventurous, try “kbrystos razhdaietsia” (Christ is born).

Celebration of Hanukkah

Hanukkah, known as the Jewish festival of light, is an eight-day celebration remembering
the rededication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem after it was occupied by the ancient Greeks. Hanukkah is a well-known Jewish holiday across many Christian and Orthodox faiths because it falls around Christmastime; however, to Jewish people, Hanukkah is considered a minor holiday and many are ambivalent about it. What it isn’t—no matter what the funny section in the card store tells you—is “Christmaskah” or “Jewish Christmas.” So never call it that.

Hanukkah Traditions

Hanukkah’s main tradition is a candle-lighting ritual. For eight consecutive nights, Jewish families light a new candle on a menorah (a nine-branched candelabrum). This tradition represents two ancient miracles: a small Jewish army (the Maccabees) defeating a large Greek army to reclaim their Holy Temple, and a small flask of oil that should have lasted only a day burning for eight days, keeping the temple’s menorah aglow.

Another Hanukkah tradition is playing the dreidel game, a gambling game played with a spinning top.

Traditional Hanukkah Dinner

Hanukkah dinner is all about oil (another nod to the ancient miracle oil that burned for eight days). The main dish is latkes (potato pancakes) served with sour cream or applesauce. Jelly doughnuts are also a traditional Hanukkah food. It’s not the day to skip dessert!

Partaking in Prayer

Jewish families often give two blessings in Hebrew as they light a candle on the menorah. No one will expect you to participate, but do listen to the beautiful language and respectfully remain quiet and engaged
during the ritual. t8n


Ask & Tell

If you’re unsure about what to expect at the celebration you’re attending, ask your significant other for answers—reliable ones. He or she can give you an idea of what to do (or not to do) at the family function. Also, if you have allergies or dietary restrictions, make sure he or she passes that info along to the host—and well in advance!


Be of Good Cheer

No matter the culture, it’s just good manners to bring a small gift for your host or hostess. Consider bringing baking, chocolates, a bottle of wine, a candle or flowers.


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