The day of the Elevation of the Cross became, as it were, the national holiday of the Eastern Christian Empire similar to the Fourth of July in the United States. The Cross, the official emblem of the Empire which was placed on all public buildings and uniforms, was officially elevated on this day by the bishops and priests. They blessed the four directions of the universe with the Cross, while the faithful repeated the chanting of “Lord have mercy.” This ritual is still done in the churches today after the solemn presentation and elevation of the Cross at the end of the Vigil service of the holy day following the Great Doxology of Matins.
This feast, though extremely festive, is a strict-fast day, due to the nature of what is being celebrated, the Cross. We commemorate the Cross every Wednesday and Friday each week, which is why we fast on those days too.
During the Nativity Fast, Orthodox Christians perpare for the celebration of the Nativity of Christ. The word “nativity” means “birth.” In western countries, this day became known as Christmas (Christ’s Mass) because it is a day when religious services (which some churches call a “Mass” and we call the “Liturgy”) are held to celebrate the birth of Christ, the Son of God, our Savior.
We know that in the present-day secular American tradition, the “holiday season” begins in November (usually the day after Thanksgiving). The Nativity Fast occurs at the same time as the secular American “holiday season.” But its it is a lot different in its meaning from secular “holiday” celebrations and traditions.
The original meaning of the word “holiday” actually was “Holy Day,” a sacred day to glorify God and His Saints. The Nativity Fast is meant to get us ready, not for a present-opening party, but for a celebration of the birth of Christ.
In many Christian churches, several weeks prior to Christmas are known as Advent, from a Latin word that means “coming.” In the Orthodox Church, this season of preparation for the Nativity of Christ always begins on November 15, the day after the Feast of the Apostle Philip. For this reason it is known as St. Philip’s Fast.
This special period lasts 40 days, the same as Lent, and it is therefore sometimes called the Winter Lent. Similar to the period of Great Lent, the Nativity Fast was established by the Church as a time for repentance. If we look around in the church during this time, we do not yet see the Christmas colors of red, green, white, silver, and gold. During the Nativity Fast, we see vestments and cloths that are purple, a color that is a symbol of repentance.