Christmas is a time of remembering. I usually don’t share my personal memories, because they are personal…and I think maybe no one will be able to relate to them.
But I am going to take a chance on that and tell you about a very special memory of mine.
I remember a Christmas time, it was probably 1997 or 1998. It was my first or second year of my six years in the seminary in Uzhorod.
My teacher of the Slavonic language said to me: “You got lucky, boy! We need your help on Christmas Eve day. Get ready for adventures!”
When that day came, the six or seven of us were dressed in a very unusual way as we left our Holy Cross Cathedral around 3 or 4 p.m.
Three guys wore their jackets turned inside out so the sherpa lining looked like they were wearing sheep skin. On their heads they wore old style hats like granddads would wear.
This was no way to vest a shepherd! And without a staff!
Two of the guys wore white sticharions on top of their jackets with fake wings on the back. They were carrying the small wooden church. Angels of course should do something useful!
I remember that day the street was noisy…cars with horns honking and people bustling around.
We walked along greeting the people, “Christ is born!,” but nobody seemed to notice us and greet us back with “Glorify Him!”. But we did not get discouraged.
We had a small bell, rang it, and paid attention to everyone. I forgot all about how silly I felt wearing that costume because nobody else seemed to care. I didn’t even worry about forgetting the text of my part because nobody really knew what I should say. Now we just were carefree, running around along the street from store to store.
“I am a shepherd on my long way. I have brought good news for you about the Bethlehem Star. Would you like me to come over and tell you my story?”, begins one shepherd at the first store.
“No,” replies the cashier, “because I am busy working and don’t have time for you guys, and anyway that star did not show up yet”. No means no. So, we continued on our way and kept singing carols and ringing the bell.
We met the manager at the next store down and he is saying “Yes” and our short performance begins.
Customers are happy and are singing with us…some of them even drop small donations for us.
The next manager gives us a donation but does not let us in. It was getting dark and the business district was about ready to close for the night.
We walked on to the neighborhood of private households where our faithful live. We didn’t even have to ring their door bells…they hear our bell. They open their doors for us and kindly invite us in.
We began singing a cheerful song:
“We have heard here is the very good household master “gazda” and his wife as well. So let us wish for them health, prosperity and many blessings in the New Year!”
We sing “Wondrous News” following the short speech from the shepherds and the Devil got his part in there as well. He discourages shepherds and angels from proclaiming the Good News and singing the carols.
We keep going from house to house. Many others invite and welcome us as well.
“Please don’t pass us by,” they are saying, “sing for us as well.”
Sometimes there are 15 or 20 individuals at the house, and we take the time for our longest performance. The angels even have speaking parts and sing with us. The Devil keeps on joking: “I am caroling, I am caroling. But I smell keilbasy coming from your ceiling. So if I won’t get your keilbasy, I’ll steal your chicken then…hahaha.”
The Christmas troparion usually concluded the long performance, or else the Irmos from the Christmas Canon from Matins.
People shared sweets with us, some of them donated money. After the performance, many guys who were not our parishioners ask who we are…they ask about our church, history, liturgical schedules, hours for confession.
Many who don’t believe in God as they said, still kept singing the carols with us because they felt like their grandmas, who already passed away, were singing it with them. Some of them cry.
Many people expected some guests and did not receive them. The tables were set and were not touched, and they were sad. But with our performance they smiled and appreciated our visitation.
One older man asked us to let him join us as we continued from house to house singing carols. He cried at the end and said the last time he did that was over 35 years ago.
I think it is important to remember this part of our spiritual heritage. It has always been with our ancestors, the founders of our Archeparchy of Pittsburgh.
We can hear the word “Jasličari” from our senior priests like Rev. Robert Karl or from video recordings, like the one posted on the website of Byzantine Catholic Church in Philadelphia, Eparchy of Passaic.
It is good for us to remember this traditional reenactment of “Jaslicari – The Bethlehem Carolers.” The Christ himself comes over to the houses and heals the hearts through that Christmas visitation of a few young kids. That is why his name is Emanuel: God is With Us! (Is 7,14; Mt 1,23).