January 7th is Christmas Day on the Julian calendar. The old calendar Christmas date, thirteen days after the Gregorian/Roman Christmas date, is observed in Ukrainian Orthodox as well as Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Churches in the United States, such as St. George’s Ukrainian Catholic Church at 30 East 7th Street in New York City’s East Village. I attended my first Ukrainian Christmas liturgy there on Monday while delivering flyers to spread the word about CTMD’s January 11th Ukrainian Christmas and New Year’s Concert with Cheres and Friends at the Ukrainian Museum (for concert details).
The church was packed, standing room only, four rows deep in the back of the sanctuary. Nearly all of the liturgy was sung—Basilian priests in gold and white vestments alternating chant with the choir, whose robust harmonized responses emanated out of the choir loft. Raised Roman Catholic, I found it fairly easy to follow where we must be at given times in the liturgy—readings, gospel, creed, communion, hosanna, hymns, carols, and a final blessing for all. Unlike many Roman churches I’d visited, whose architecture directed one’s eye and mood up a somewhat narrower vault above the altar, St. George’s altar and the arching dome above it seemed very golden and very wide. An icon of Mary presided over the others, with an expression simultaneously solemn and kind. The iconostasis, an ornate, jewel-encrusted, gilded gate dividing the area of worship from the priests’ ministrations, concealed the altar but also revealed it, as ministers opened and closed the gate’s many doors. The sermon had to do with a few words I could recognize. “Sviatlo.” “Sontce.” “Wchora.” Around the dome in a semi-circle of red Cyrillic letters I could make out the word „R„B„`„S painted three times: Holy, holy, holy.
Crowded shoulder-to-shoulder with several generations of Ukrainians and Ukrainian-Americans in back, I could listen to my neighbors’ singing voices at very close range. Unlike Roman Catholic churchgoers, they sang matter-of-factly in multi-part harmony and blessed themselves repeatedly with the sign of the cross throughout the service, in reverse from the Latin manner—head, heart, right, then left. A middle-aged woman to my left sang the basic melodies while an older man with a rich baritone directly behind me preferred to harmonize a third step up. After the last hymn I dropped off the concert flyers, gave one to the choir mistress, and departed. Outside on the church steps parishioners lingered to greet each other. The weather was unseasonably mild. The 7th Street Ukrainian shop and McSorley’s Pub across from the church were as closed as closed can be in New York City—metal grates pulled down to the ground over their facades and locked up for the holy day.
On the way to the Astor Place subway station I stopped at Ray’s Pizza for a slice before returning to work. Relaxed by having spent two hours surrounded by incense, song, and prayer, I ate and let my eyes wander. Across the room an older man sat with his wife and daughter. His sweater caught my eye—a rich, forest-green Irish wool, possibly handknit, with a band of deep honeycomb stitch down the front. I took in his large working hands and the full head of half-grey hair crowning his benevolent face like new mown hay. Then I realized he wasn’t Irish at all, but Ukrainian. There was his daughter–the brilliant crimson jacket she had had on in church was now resting on her chair. A few minutes later I heard a cell phone with a ringtone that went on and on. In fact, it sounded like a village song. I looked up. The daughter had taken out a tiny digital recorder and was holding it up in the air for her parents to hear. The three leaned in closer together. There it was again–the St. George choir singing the most melodious Ukrainian carol they had sung just moments before in the church around the corner—Boh Predvichny (God Eternal is Born). They were smiling to hear it a second time. Now it was their own—people in love with a song.