Nativity Fast: 40 Days of Preparing the Spirit for Christmas

For many of us in the Philippines, Christmas and fasting don’t go together. After all, this predominantly Christian nation has the longest Christmas in the world, starting from September 1 to well beyond December 25. Even non-Christians have reasons to celebrate, as this season is the perfect time to gather the family or hold class reunions.

As for me, I was never a Christmas person growing up. This isn’t just because I did not practice my Roman Catholic baptism until a few years ago. Being an introvert, parties and the need to be in a festive mood have always drained my social batteries. I’ve always thought there’s too much going on on the days leading up to Christmas, that, at least for me, there is not much difference between them and the day itself. This is why I prefer Lent over Advent and this is why the existence of the Nativity Fast is a welcome discovery.

(EDIT: Updated based on recommendations by our Parish Priest.)

What is the Nativity Fast?

The Nativity Fast, also called the Christmas Fast, is one of the four major fasts periods practiced in Eastern Christian Churches, including the Eastern Catholic Church. It is a preparatory fast where we attempt to empty ourselves to let the Lord in, to remind us of our absolute reliance upon God (Ez 8,21-23). It prepares one’s spirit for the birth of Jesus through prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.

“It is written: “‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.'”

Matthew 4:4

This is also a response to the overconsumption and consumerism that we commonly witness during this holiday season.

The Nativity Fast is not ordinarily practiced by Roman Catholics, at least, here in the Philippines. This is why I am basing this practice on the Eastern Catholic Church and the Greek Orthodox Church. (Other Orthodox Christians, like Eastern and Russian, have a different calendar.)

The Fast runs from November 15 to December 24. On the last day, strict fasting is observed, where only allowed liquids are consumed.

Nativity Fast in Roman Catholic Practice

According to history, Latin Rite Catholics traditionally practiced fasting on December 7 (Vigil of the Immaculate Conception) and December 24 (Vigil of the Nativity). Although I don’t think these are required by our Church anymore, it doesn’t hurt to ask your parish priest if you are interested in these preparatory fasts.

What are the Differences Between the Lenten and the Nativity Fast?

Our knowledge about religious fasts as Roman Catholics come from our annual mandatory practice of fasting during Lent. Although they basically practice the same guidelines, the main difference is that while the Lenten Fast is very solemn, the Nativity Fast is a time of reserved joy. In both instances, almsgiving is encouraged.

What Can You Eat During the Nativity Fast?

You must abstain from meat (including meat alternatives), fish, dairy, eggs, oil, and wine during the Nativity Fast. However, this is not as strict as the Lenten fast. There are certain dispensations on certain days, which you may check in this article.

According to Fr. Tryphon, we might be tempted to simply replace meat with plant-based meat alternatives or dairy with dairy alternatives. Although this is okay at the start, the goal is to eventually eat simple vegetables.

Nevertheless, the Eastern Catholic Church reminds us not to be too focused on the fasting aspect. Instead, this is a time to contemplate on the obedience of Mary to the will of God and the anticipation of the birth of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

Fasting is only about food. But…

When I was still actively serving as a lector/commentator at our parish – I know this is not an excuse, but I stopped when I became pregnant and gave birth – I asked our priest how else should I fast for Lent. At that time, I was a whole food plant-based vegan, so I was eating simply prepared local and seasonal produce from the market and from the farm of my then-boyfriend’s (now husband’s) parents. He said I should instead fast from activities that are taking my time from prayer, like social media or TV.

Religious fasts are meant for us to enter a period of fasting, praying, and almsgiving. This is not to be used to lose weight. Our priest even specifically said we cannot fast if we have eating disorders. Also, any money that we save from buying food should be given to the needy.

When Should You NOT Fast?

Like during Lent, there are situations when Christians should not fast. According to Holy Cross, we should not fast:

  • from December 25 to January 5
  • if pregnant or breastfeeding a newborn
  • if sick or taking medication
  • without prayer and almsgiving
  • according to your own will

In addition, we should not fast on Sundays, which are days of celebration. If December 24 is a Sunday, fasting is suppressed.

Conclusion

Christmas is here and it is easy to go by the flow with all the sales and festivities “required” by this season. The joyous Nativity Fast is a great way to prepare our bodies and spirits to celebrate Jesus’ birth. By abstaining from palatable tastes and entering into a period of prayer and almsgiving, we will have more enjoyment as we partake of the spread lovingly prepared with our families for Christmas day.

To know more about the details of the Nativity Fast, visit Metropolitan Cantor Institute, Nativity Fast.

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