The Head of the Patriarchal administration, the secretary of the Synod of Bishops of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church Bohdan DZIURAKH answers The Day’s questions:
Could you please tell us about your experience of celebrating St. Nicholas Day?
“For me it has always been a holiday of ‘anticipated surprise.’ On the one hand, everybody knows that St. Nicholas will come to each house, but on the other hand, that small package found in the morning under the pillow, was a great surprise. The joy shrouded children’s souls...
“When people become older, they start realizing the deeper meaning of this holiday: it forms in minds of children the image of a God who is kind, who surprises you and brings joy, unnoticed and unobtrusive. At the same time, St. Nicholas Day demonstrates that God, so to speak, believes in humans, notices the minor motions of their hearts that tend toward what is good, and evaluates and rewards them appropriately, regardless of their weaknesses or faults, which are difficult to avoid for both kids and adults.
“Thus, God sustains the goodness in humans. That’s why St. Nicholas Day has always been for me the holiday of God’s kindness. And even when you realize with time that God’s kindness usually uses people’s hands, God’s loving heart is always hidden behind them.”
Do you remember any special presents?
“Our family wasn’t wealthy, so we didn’t get any special presents. Usually we got sweets and mandarins… But every present carried this magic air of celebration, the feeling that somebody remembers about you and loves you.
“However, I do recall one special case. I was already an adult. A family from Holland sent me their traditional gift for St. Nicholas Day — a chocolate cake with the letter “B” on it (from my name in Latin script). I was really pleased to get such an unusual present. But then it occurred to me to give as well. In a telephone conversation with my Dutch friends I arranged that St. Nicholas would give this present to my nephew Volodia, whom this family knew well, the more so that the letter was relevant for the addressee…
“I think it is a St. Nicholas Day tradition — to teach children first to enjoy love and kindness and then share them with others. Christian love is not a behavior on the principle that I give something to God and he gives me something back. No! God gives us unselfishly and tells us to give unselfishly to other people. ‘To accept a gift – give as gift’ says Christ in the Gospel.”
In which countries of the Europe and the world is St. Nicholas popular?
“It is probably easier to list the countries where he isn’t known and popular. In each Christian country the cult of St. Nicholas is widespread.
“Nowadays the problem is not in popularity but the commercialization of this saint and everything related to this pure and holy person. The same goes for Christmas. Particularly in the West, where the preparation for Christmas is reduced to a feverish quest for presents: people forget about the greatest gift received by world on that day, namely the Savior. In people’s minds St. Nicholas has turned into Santa Claus, directing people not to the church but to supermarkets.”
“However, even such a perverted perception of this saint doesn’t dint his wide popularity. Most of us remember that even the communists in the Soviet Union, who tried to eradicate religion, nevertheless introduced Father Frost who was an awkward imitation of St. Nicholas. Herewith in stead of an angel, who followed St. Nicholas, Father Frost had his granddaughter Snow Maiden.”
“As for our people, I’m really amazed with the love and respect that Ukrainians show towards this saint. We, Christians, commemorate one or even several saints every day, but St. Nicholas takes a special place. His holiday sounds the hidden strings of human souls, awakes our best and noblest qualities that make us similar to God: selflessness and sincere kindness.
“The respect towards St. Nicholas is revealed on different levels: on the liturgical one, when every Thursday we commemorate him in our prayers or admire his image on the place of honor in the iconostasis (according to our iconographic canon); on the family level, when in every Christian home we find a St. Nicholas icon or give this name to our children and entrust this heavenly patron to care for them; and finally, on the social level, when we widely celebrate St. Nicholas Day, paying attention not only to children but to everyone in need.
“In my opinion, the fact that this holiday is so popular reveals some features of our nation: kindness, hospitality, sensitivity to other people’s needs. In particular, in Kyivan Rus’ there was the following custom: each house used to have a small window for travelers who could just knock at it and the host would always give them alms.
“Analyzing our customs, our national character, based on the Christian values and the Gospel’s teachings, some people came up with a more global conclusion. The Greeks, who used to worship wisdom, introduced a cult of God’s wisdom after having accepted Christianity. Saint Sophia, whose symbol is the St. Sophia Cathedral in Constantinople, is for the Ukrainian people, due to our natural inclinations and national character, a symbol of God’s kindness — our St. Agatha. I should confess that I accept this idea because even for my Episcopal emblem I use the liturgical expression “For thou God is lovest” that emphasizes this special love for mankind — God’s kindness.”
You mentioned the Soviet Father Frost. What should we do to oust him from Ukrainian social life, and revive St. Nicholas in those families where Father Frost is popular?
“I think nothing should be done by force. The dew disappears when the sun rises. Christ said: ‘Know the truth and the truth will make you free.’ Atheistic forces can’t completely disclaim man’s religious nature. We should speak more about St. Nicholas, explaining at the same time why Father Frost was invented. This is what we are doing. Here’s an example: once on St. Nicholas Day’s eve I was invited to a public institution to tell the employees about the saint, about the importance to commemorate his memory nowadays, about the traditions of this holiday. And though I could see a small picture of Father Frost in the background of the scene (it’s not that easy for us to cut the navel string that ties us — that might be the best word — with our past), there was another atmosphere in the hall — the spirit of St. Nicholas — pure, without any ideological implications, the one we know since childhood. That is why I could see a lot of joy in the eyes of the people present.
“The Soviet ideology aimed at replacing people’s real religious convictions. Communists invented Father Frost because they realized that they couldn’t eliminate religion directly. Today we have a mission to revive what has been nourishing our spirit for thousands of years. For this purpose we should restore the real traditions that have been nourishing our people’s morals and have formed our archetype — the one of a tolerant, kind, optimistic and creative nation. Thus we derive the inspiration from the Creator.”
What spiritual gifts should we ask St. Nicholas for?
“First of all, we should ask him for kindness that would reflect God’s divine grace, like St. Nicholas. If you read his Hagiography attentively, you will find out that ordinary people loved him not because of the miracles he worked though he did it, but because he showed everybody his kindness which was the reflection of God’s kindness.”
It’s Advent now. How should we behave at this time?
“Advent is a special time when we are expecting Christ’s arrival. What does it mean for us as Christians? As we know, he was born two millennia ago… In this context I always recall a statement by one of the western mystics: even if Christ had been born a thousand times in Bethlehem but not in your soul, then His advent two thousand years ago is vain for you. In ‘The Creed’ we admit that Christ came to the world ‘for us and our salvation.’ That is why it is important not to waste Christ’s advent to our world.
“During Advent we have to reflect on the fact that God’s love was revealed when Christ was born into the world of terrestrial people, and ask Him to come to our souls and change our life, fill it with His divine grace and love. Christmas has to help us welcome Jesus Christ, revive our faith in Him. These reflections, together with prayer, fasting and the good that we do for our neighbors would be the best preparation for Christmas time.”
What are the large social and charitable events planned by the UGCC on St. Nicholas Day?
“Any good action, even a minor one, has universal meaning, since step by step it changes our world, making it better, more human and divine. That is why we try to involve as many of our parishioners as possible in charity. With this aim we organize various projects on both church-wide and local levels. In particular, each year the charitable organization Caritas distributes Christmas candles in our communities in Ukraine and abroad and spends the proceeds on the needs of orphans and poor children. Similar large events are held by other church organizations as well, for example the Maltese service, youth communities like the UGCC Youth committee, the Vitania community, and others.
“Also, each parish organizes St. Nicholas Day events that reflect their local community’s peculiarities. Certainly, children are the main addresses of this holiday. However, we don’t pass over adults, especially sick, lonely and elderly people. Often children prepare presents themselves and bring them together with St. Nicholas to their friends in orphanages, kindergartens or in the shelters for elderly people. In short, we try to make as many people as possible feel God’s kindness, which He grants through the protection of St. Nicholas and people’s hands, hearts and souls.
“As to St. Nicholas Day, it is important to emphasize: this holiday shouldn’t turn into a one-off event; something like the International women’s day, when all the men ‘mobilize’ and buy presents for their fiancees, wives and daughters and the next day everything resumes its normal course. St. Nicholas Day has to make us sensitive towards our relatives during the whole year and not only for one day. That is why it is very important for us to develop in our communities the Diaconia — the service of God’s love for those who need it, which is not just an event, but the reflection of the Church’s essence.”
What has the passing year meant for Ukraine?
“Each year is a year of God’s divine grace. The passing year has been the same. There are pleasing graces that we accept easily and willingly as something that goes without saying, and there are demanding graces, and to accept them we need morals and faith. Probably, this year we had more demanding graces, but I believe that behind all the events there was the loving and caring heart of the God, his presence that we call Providence.
“I would like to wish all of us to be able to learn all the lessons the passing year has taught us, thank God, and start a new year with a firm belief in God’s love for us and always follow His law in our family, private and professional life. This will guarantee that the coming year will be a blessed one for everyone of us and for our country.”