Archimandrite Vassilios (Papavassiliou) in his book Meditations for Advent: Preparing for Christ’s Birth, reminds us that the celebration of Christmas is not mostly about partying, shopping or giving gifts. Christmas does not merely commemorate a past historical event, as theologically important as that event might be. Christmas and the Nativity Fast preceding it are geared to change our hearts and lives. Christmas is the coming of the Kingdom of God. Jesus Christ Himself teaches that the proper response to the Kingdom is repentance!
“Jesus began to preach, saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.‘” (Matthew 4:17)
Christmas and the season preceding it are meant to change our hearts, to help us to become imitators of Christ, so that we live to love both God and neighbor. Archimandrite Vassilios writes:
“It is not enough to celebrate Christmas. We need to be changed and shaped by what we are celebrating. If our spiritual life is no better in spite of all our praying, fasting, and church services, then we have not yet begun to fully respond to the significance of Advent and of the Nativity. The Church’s invitation to prepare for the Nativity is above all a command to us to open the gates of repentance, that Christ may enter our very being and be born anew in our hearts, and to offer our virtues to the newborn King.
Instead of gold, we offer charity;
instead of frankincense, prayer;
instead of myrrh, repentance.
Then, like the song of the angels and the adoration of the shepherds, our worship will be pure and our love without pretense.” (Kindle Loc. 161-66)
Archimandrite Vassilios notes that Nativity Fast in popular Orthodox practice is not kept as strictly as Great Lent.
“November 15—Orthodox Advent begins (The Nativity fast is not as strict as most fasts of the Orthodox Church, and the practices of fasting vary from one place to another. The general rule is that we abstain from meat and dairy throughout Advent, and from fish on Wednesdays and Fridays and during the last 5, 7, or 12 days of Advent—from December 20, 18, or 13—depending on local custom.) (Vassilios Papavassiliou, Meditations for Advent: Preparing for Christ’s Birth, Kindle Loc. 69-72)