Among the Ruthenian Byzantine Catholics, the Christmas Holyday starts with the appearance of the 1st star. It is the job of the youngest member of the household to look for the star.
All the adults have been busy preparing the Svati Vecer or Holy Supper. This is a meat-less meal that is eaten in every household. The meal varies from family to family but usually goes something like this:
A white table cloth is placed on the table. Under this, straw has been scattered to represent the manger where the Infant Jesus was placed.
On the table, a round loaf of bread was placed with a candle in the middle. The candle is lit and represents Christ as the light of the World. The loaf of bread is the staff of life.
As the family sits down to dinner, the door is cracked and an empty place is left at the table. This is for the Holy Family journeying on their way to Bethlehem, to let them know that there is room for them in this house. It is said the empty place is for loved ones and friends who visit from the other world during this time of year.
The meal starts with a prayer followed by eating of a piece of bread smeared with honey and a clove of garlic. The bread symbolizes life and the honey and garlic is everything that is sweet and bitter in life.
Next comes the soup made of mushrooms and sauerkraut. Many families also add babalky, round pieces of bread about the size of a marble.
After the soup, there are dishes of fish, so the meal is meat-less, prunes with pits in them (always a pair so the family will be together the next year), pirohy of various kinds followed by fruits, pastries, nuts, cookies and candy.
The meal ends with a prayer and families get ready to attend either the Great Compline or Divine Liturgy.
In many households, all persons sitting at the Svati Vecer wear shoes. Shoes, in the old country, were a sign of being wealthy. To be barefoot was a sign of being poor and because we are receiving the Infant Jesus, we are rich!
In other homes and villages, heavy chains are tied around the table legs so that the bounty found on the table for the Svati Vecer will remain all year long.
Some villages and homes will eat the Svati Vecer sitting on the floor to remind them of the poverty of the Holy Family.
In other villages, there are 12 courses to the meal to remember the Holy Apostles.
You will find the same or similar customs in Poland, Ukraine and Hungary.
One friend, who is Ukrainian, eats a dish called KUTIJA, which is made of boiled grains and honey. One the traditions followed by his family is for everyone to take a small spoonfull of the KUTIJA and flip it on the ceiling. It’s supposed to stay there until it falls off. It’s supposed to bring good luck in the New Year.
Hope this helps…