Eastern Orthodox Christianity

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Eastern Orthodox Christianity

Food plays an important role in the liturgical, ritual, canonical, and dogmatic life of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Throughout the ages, Orthodoxyfrom the Greek orthós (correct) and dóxa (belief)has come to encompass many nationalities throughout the world. Historically the early church was geographically separated into a Latin West (centered in Rome) and a Greek East in Constantinople (modern Istanbul). The Roman emperor Constantine, who sanctioned tolerance of Christians in 313, moved his capital to the Greek city of Byzantium (and renamed it Constantinople) in 330, and convened the first Ecumenical Council there. Although the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church remained in communion through the Seventh Ecumenical Council, the Great Schism of 1054 is the generally accepted date for the division of the Christian churches.

The Russians, Ukrainians, and White Russians (also referred to as Belorussians or East Slavs) were proselytized by Orthodox missionaries beginning in the ninth century, and eventually adopted the liturgy, calendar, and many customs of the Greek Orthodox Church. (While the Slavic Orthodox and some "old calendarist" Greeks follow the older Julian calendar, non-Slavic Orthodox, such as most Greeks, Syrians, Egyptians, and the Balkan nations, have followed the contemporary Gregorian calendar since the early part of the twentieth century. Dual dates are given throughout this entry.) Despite the multiethnic and multilingual composition of Orthodox Christians worldwide, Orthodoxy remains united in dogma, virtually unchanged for almost two thousand years. There is a similar unity in the role that food plays in the life of the church.

Holy Bread (Prosforo, Antidora, Artos)

Holy bread, or prosforo (from prosfora 'offering'), plays a central role during Communion, the most important rite of the Orthodox church. For Orthodox Christians, the prosforo (Russian prosvira) becomes the Body of Christ. Often prepared by a parishioner, the bread is is round and consists of two separate parts made from leavened wheat bread. The stamped design on the upper part of the loaf is that of a cross with the letters IC, XC, NIKA, which stands for "Jesus Christ Conquers," and is cut out by the priest during the preparation of the Eucharist ("thanksgiving"). The service of artoklasia (breaking of bread) represents a thanksgiving for God's blessings and commemorates Christ's miracle of multiplying five loaves to feed thousands. Other sacred breads include antidora (from dōra, 'gift'), which is distributed by the priest to the faithful following the Divine Liturgy, artos, panagia, and Easter cake (Greek, tsoureki).

The commandment to sacrifice bread is found in the Old Testament: "Besides the cakes, he shall offer for his offering leavened bread with the sacrifice of thanksgiving of his peace offerings" (Leviticus 7:13). In accordance with ancient traditions, a least five prosforo are used during the first part of the liturgy (proscomidia ). The wheat used to make the prosforo is symbolic of the human essence, which consists of the many elements of nature; the yeast represents the life-giving force of the Holy Ghost. The division of prosforo into two parts is symbolic of the distinction between human flesh (flour and water) and soul (yeast and Holy Water). Traditionally, the prosforo is prepared by pious women and widows.

It is customary for Orthodox who are named after a particular saint to celebrate their "name day." In Greece and Cyprus the celebrant provides the five prosforo to their church on the eve of the saint's day. The small round loaves of white bread, which are spiced with cloves and bitter orange-blossom water, are then blessed by the priest, and one of the loaves is sent to the yortaris, or feast giver, while the other loaves are cut into pieces and offered to the congregation and to the poor.

Antidoron (Greek) or antidor (Russian) is a small piece of prosforo that is distributed after a mass to those who did not receive communion. Antidoron, from the Greek anti (instead) and dōron (gift), dates to the seventh century in the Orthodox church.

Artos, the third type of sacred bread, includes an image of the cross with a crown of thorns, which is symbolic of Christ's Resurrection. A leavened bread that is consecrated by the priest on Easter, the artos remains on the lectern before the iconostasis during the week. Easter cake is a kind of artos that is consecrated on Saturday before Easter Sunday.

Bread appears in various customs of the Orthodox church. Orthodox monasteries celebrate a ceremony to the Panagia (the Virgin Mary) in which sacred breadprosforo or panagia is solemnly taken to a refectory after the liturgy, reminiscent of the apostolic tradition. Special breads also mark periods of Orthodox fasting. For Greek Orthodox, Lenten fasting begins on "Clean Monday," when a special flat bread called lagana is baked. Among Russians, Ukrainians, and White Russians there was a custom of baking an unleavened bread with the image of a cross during the fourth week of Lent.

Orthodox Feasts and Fasts

Various Orthodox feasts and fasts mark the life of Christ, the Virgin Mary, and the saints. The Orthodox Church recognizes twelve Great Feast Days, eight of which are events in the life of Christ, and four in the life of the Virgin Mary. Easter stands alone as the most important Orthodox holiday, and is celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon following the vernal equinox. (The date is calculated on the Julian calendar and therefore differs from that of Easter in the Western Church.) Feasts like Christmas are fixed, while others such as Easter are moveable.

Easter. Special Easter bread and boiled eggs that are dyed blood red (symbolic of Christ's crucifixion) are the most important food items for Orthodox during the Easter season. In Greece a large loaf of leavened bread is always present on the Easter table together with traditional sweet rolls (koulouria ), sweetened bread (tsoureki ), and little filled cheese envelopes (called kaliitsounakia on the island of Crete).

The tradition of presenting Easter eggs has its roots in the ancient notion of the cosmic Golden Egg. Early Christians regarded the egg as a symbol of life, and rebirth was made manifest through the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Following the midnight Easter serviceheld on Saturday nightthe Greeks have the traditional Anastasimo meal, the first meal of the Resurrection, which consists of a special paschal soup (known in Greek as mayeritsa ) made from the intestines and other organs of lamb. The soup is eaten in the early morning following the midnight service, along with the sweet bread called tsorekia (flavored with the spice machlepi, which is made from a ground seed from Syria), koulourakia pascalina (bread rolls), the kalitsounia (cheese pies), and a salad of greens. The red-dyed boiled eggs, which are prepared on Holy Thursday, are cracked by faithful Greek Orthodox accompanied with the words Christos Anesti! ("Christ is Risen!") and the reply Alithos Anesti ("He is truly Risen"). The Easter Sunday meals consists of spit-roasted lamb, salads, grilled offal, Easter rolls and bread, and red wine.

Russians, Ukrainians, and White Russians celebrate Easter by preparing sweet bread (Russian kulich ; Ukrainian paska ) and sweet curds with raisins or fruits (pasha ) and by painting boiled eggs that have been consecrated. East Slavs dye eggs by boiling them with onion husk or fuchsine. Ukrainian Easter eggs are famous for their decorative art and symbolic designs.

Christmas and New Year. Christmas (25 December/ 7 January) is the second important festival in the Orthodox calendar. Roasted pig was an obligatory dish in the Orthodox tradition, but it has been superseded by stuffed roast turkey for Christmas Day, doubtless influenced by the customs of Western Europe. Turkeys are stuffed with a mixture of minced beef or lamb, rice, and pine nuts and served with a variety of salads and potatoes. During the Christmas season Greek cooks prepare loukanika (sausages) and lountza (smoked fillet), hiromeri (smoked ham), and zalatina (brawn). The Greeks also eat rose waterflavored shortbread and syrup-drenched honey cakes called kourambiédes and melomakárona, respectively.

A New Year tree is symbolic of the Tree of Life in Slavic Orthodox cultures, and is decorated with candles denoting the spiritual light and fruits implying the kingdom of paradise and its salutary fruits in Greece. The feast of St. Basil is celebrated on New Year's Day, and on New Year's Eve the head of the household cuts the vasilopita (literally "bread of the king"). The first slice is laid aside for Jesus Christ, and then everyone receives a slice; a lucky coin is traditionally hidden somewhere in the loaf. (The recipient of the coin is said to enjoy good fortune for the coming year.) This custom is repeated by town officials as an expression of the wish for good health and prosperity for the whole community. The story of the vasilopita, or the loaf of St. Basil (the Great; 330379), dates to an incident in ancient Cappadocia (in central Anatolia), when the Archbishop Basil was said to have saved the church treasury from plunder by baking coins in small loaves that were then distributed to the whole congregation.

Other major feasts. The Holy Trinity (in Greek, Aghia Triada ) is celebrated on the fiftieth day (the Pentecost) after Easter. Russians, Ukrainians, and White Russians historically decorated their houses with branches of birch tree, green grass, and flowers imitating an ancient harvest tradition. In Greece, on the Saturday before Pentecost, sweet cereal porridge, sweet bread, and other foods are consecrated in the church and then brought to cemeteries where they are distributed to the poor. There is a similar tradition among East Slavs.

Many Orthodox consecrate both grapes and wheat on the feast day of the Transfiguration (6 August/19 August) as an expression of thanksgiving. In Russia, where grapes are not cultivated everywhere, a related feast (of the "Apple Savior") sanctifies apples and other fruits and vegetables in the church.


Fasting among Orthodox Christians has its basis in the Old Testament and has ancient roots in the Church. Orthodox insist that the body must be disciplined as well as the soul, and strict fasting in the Orthodox Church is demanding, especially when compared to the fasting known to some Western Christians. Extended and one-day fasts, which are linked to major Christian feasts, account for more than two hundred days of the year. There are four extended fasts in the Orthodox tradition, but their duration and the level of strictness vary. The Great Fast of Lent begins seven weeks before Easter; the Fast of the Apostles starts on the Monday eight days after Pentecost, and ends on 28 June (11 July), the eve of the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul; the Assumption Feast lasts from 1 to 14 August (14 to 27 August); and the Christmas Fast lasts forty days, from 15 November to 24 December (28 November to 6 January).

Each of the major fasts has associated foods and food traditions, but there is great variation in the duration, severity, and exceptions made (for example, monks and clerics versus the laity, the infirm versus the healthy, and so on.) In fact, there is great variation in the strictness of fasting among Orthodox worldwide, and dispensations, especially among the Orthodox diaspora, are common.

The last week before Lent is marked by carnival or Shrovetide, a celebration that dates from ancient times and has much in common with the cult of the deceased. In Greece the pre-Lenten period is called Apokries (literally "away from meat"). Devout Orthodox visit cemeteries with sweet wheat porridge (called kolivo in Greek) and other foods. In Russia the period before Lent is known as Maslenitsa (or "Cheese Week"), and during this time quantities of bliny (pancakes) and milk products, especially butter, are eaten in place of meat products. In Russia, on Saturdays before the feasts of St. Trinity and St. Dimitry, as well as other days, a special sweet porridge (kutja ), similar to the Greek kolivo, and made from cereals with honey, raisins, or fruits, is blessed during the liturgy. Such rituals are closely connected with the ancient beliefs of farmers that treat the souls of the deceased with grain, wine, oil, honey, and panspermia a porridge made from cereals and leguminous plants.

During Lent, only vegetable-based foods are permitted: meat, fish (with backbone), dairy products, eggs, and sweets are specifically excluded from the diet. On Saturdays and Sundays dishes containing vegetable oil (except on Saturday of Holy Week) and wine are permitted. The greatest severity in fasting is reserved for Holy Week, when Orthodox around the world abstain from all animal products, oil, and wine. On Great Friday (Good Friday), in particular, devout Orthodox eat nothing in preparation for the church services.

Strict one-day fasts occur on Christmas Eve, when East Slavs consume nothing but bread and water until the conclusion of the evening mass (when they eat a special porridge called sochivo made with boiled wheat, barley, or rice with honey); on the eve of the Epiphany or the Twelfth-Day (5 January/18 January); on the Feast of the Beheading of St. John the Prophet (29 August/11 September); and on the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross (14 September/27 September). In addition, Orthodox faithful fast on Wednesdays and Fridays every week (with some days excepted).

Historically in Russia, peasants who grew their own crops and vegetables were better able to endure times of fasting than those in urban areas. "Black" or rye bread and pies made from the mixture of rye and wheat flour were a part of the everyday meal. A variety of cereals allowed the peasantry to prepare different kinds of nutritious porridges. Potatoes, cabbage, and carrots were cultivated in many provinces and were the main ingredients of traditional soup or shchtee.

In every family the customs of fasting were passed on from generation to generation, but there was notable differentiation even within one family. Elderly people were the authority in the practice of fasting and abstained more strictly. Children were trained to fast from the age of two or three years. The larger part of the population in Russia kept fasts.

During the Soviet period (19171991) the tradition of fasting was compromised in Russia by Communist Party doctrine that held organized religion a suspected enemy of the state. Adherents of the Orthodox faith nevertheless carried on these practices despite official intolerance.

See also Christmas ; Easter ; Fasting and Abstinence ; Feasts, Festivals, and Fasts ; Greece and Crete ; Religion and Food ; Russia .


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Eastern Orthodox Christianity