The international Orthodox festival “Joy of Christmas” opened this year’s Christmas season at St. Elisabeth Convent. The festival was launched on 21 December at the Palace of Arts in Minsk. The atmosphere of the festival was filled with the anticipation of the great feast of the Nativity of Jesus Christ. All was reminiscent of it - the Christmas fair, the smell of the incense, the treats, the smiles of the children and the prayers of the clergy.
“The joy does not end with the festival; our whole lives are filled with it,” says Novice Fotinya (Gornostayeva), who participated in the organisation of the festival. “I never stop thinking about what it means to us and why it is important. Several years ago, when we were just starting, I thought that it existed to bring together like-minded people from different monasteries and churches to share their achievements and reflections about their lives. Today, I believe that it is needed to underline the sanctity and unity of the Eastern Orthodox faith. This idea can be conveyed in many ways, including through the spoken word and through art. We also speak about family values, as the family unit is the foundation of our life. There is no future without the family. Indeed, the purpose of the festival is more than just sharing our joy.
There are a lot of festivals and fairs going on, but ours is an Orthodox one. The Convent of Saint Elisabeth has a mission to bring the Orthodox faith to many, and in doing so, to rely on God’s help and support. This year, we received a lot of applications from parishes, monasteries and young believers who were willing to participate, and our programme is very busy.”
The first morning of the festival began with a prayer and a film show. The guests saw the Belarusian documentary titled “Everyone’s Candle” featuring a unique tradition - still practised in Southern Belarus - for a whole community to come together to make a sacrificial candle. The filmmaker Irina Volokh had as her objective to make this tradition known to the public in the hope that many will be inspired to uphold it. Large candles weighing several kilograms can still be found in several churches in Belarus.
The formal launch of the festival was preceded by a performance of children’s and youth choirs under the common title “The rich gift of the Christmas season”. According to Lyubov Shpakovskaya, the master of ceremonies of the concert, this title was inspired by the lines of a well-known Christmas carol. Lyubov Shpakovskaya has a degree in art history and is the precentor of the children’s and youth choir “Ladya” of the Parish of St. Andrew in Minsk. Other performances on the festival’s stage included the junior choir “Ladushki”, of the same parish, the youth choir of the Parish of All Saints, “Big Family”, and the inclusive choir “Joy of the Spirit”. The young performers sang canonical hymns and Christmas carols in Belarusian, Russian, Serbian and Greek.
“We always welcome the chance to participate in the festivals on the eve of the Orthodox Christmas season,” says Liuba Shpakovskaya. “This is particularly welcome news for our young singers. We like to share with everyone our joy and feel the warm reception of our audience. For the “Ladushki” choir, this festival was very special, as this was their first appearance on the big stage.
The choir “Ladya” had been preparing for the concert for a long time. Some parts of our programme we knew very well, while others had been prepared especially for the concert. One of our greatest difficulties was to find some new items, as we had performed a lot of pieces over our eight-year career on stage. Fortunately, Christmas is a very prolific theme for songs and hymns, and there is still a lot to choose from.
Incidentally, the birth of our choir was also connected to the Feast of the Nativity of Christ. On one occasion, some parents at our church asked us to teach some Christmas carols to their children. Originally, there were only five children; eventually, they brought with them their brothers and sisters, and today the choir numbers 20 people and is large enough to perform on stage."
Pavel Shikhantsov, 14, has been singing with the choir since age 6. He also goes to music school and a production centre and sings solo and in groups. He performs different types of music, but he finds singing with the choir particularly enjoyable because of its friendly atmosphere and because it performs church music.
After the choir concert, Archbishop Michael (Donskov), a retired hierarch of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, served a Moleben for the beginning of a good deed. In his discourse after the Moleben, Archbishop Michael remarked that the festival not only brings joy to its audiences, but it also helps prepare for the celebration of the feast of the Nativity of Jesus Christ.
Another round of performances of instrumental Christmas music followed this, along with singing by the students of the Convent’s school Ichthys and the mixed choir “Large family” of the Parish of All Saints.
In his afternoon discourse at 14:00, Father Mikhail addressed a range of themes, with a focus on European values and emigration. Speaking from the perspective of a person who was born and grew up abroad, Father Mikhail shared his observations of the lives of the Russian emigrants and their effort to keep their traditions alive. The people who were leaving Russia in the wake of the Russian revolution of 1917 knew that they were not coming back, and they were trying to build a small Russia and Russian Orthodox temples in their new homes. They wanted to continue to be Russians despite having had to emigrate. Today, even as the best minds of this part of the world are being lured by the offer of economic benefits, Father Michael is convinced that in order to keep their countries alive, Russians and Belarusians should seek to build their fortunes at home. The Archbishop also spoke about the practice of the Orthodox faith in French-speaking parishes and focused on his memories of Saint John of Shanghai and SanFrancisco, whom he had known in person.
The opening day events also featured students of the Belarusian Academy of Music and Nun Maria [Is that the spelling of her name?] (Litvinova) with a discourse on health and beauty. The young visitors were invited to view theatrical productions of fairy tales, take part in masterclasses and spend time with the clowns.
“The first day is always a busy one,” remarks Olga Milashevskaya, the manager of the festival’s children’s programme. There are a lot of people here. To many, this is not their first time, and they are very good friends of ours. People are always thankful when they see things organised in a different way. None of our worries and concerns about the organisation can overshadow the warm and grateful reception of the festival by our guests.
One of our firsts this year is the “Christmas Vertep Contest”. All the verteps were made by the students of the Sunday schools at various parishes across Belarus. They all look very nice. The children and their teaches have put their hearts into it.
Through this contest, we hope to promote sharing and exchange among the parishes, so people can know more about the lives of the church communities outside their own, and to let them share the fruits of their work and just spend time together. We expect a lot of friendships to be made by the closure of the festival. The best verteps will be donated to children in the care of several residential facilities. We invite all our guests to participate in the selection of the winner by casting their votes for the Vertep that they liked the most. The choice will not be easy!"
We asked Olga how the organisers of the festival were managing to avoid being repetitive within the relatively limited space of the children’s section. According to Olga, the life of our Lord was a prolific source of new ideas, coupled with the results of their own creativity. Olga explains:
“We linked the theme of our programme and masterclasses to the Feast of the Nativity of Jesus Christ. It is permeated by the anticipation of this miracle.
But there are also wonders that we can work ourselves. Two of our activities - titled “Mail from Santa Claus” and “Gift of a miracle for the neighbour” will bring the joy of Christmas to the children from the boarding home at Ostroshitsky Gorodok, who will receive a Christmas gift and a warm greeting card from someone who cares.
One other ambition that we have is to organise an art exhibition in memory of Anton Savchik, a talented painter from an orphanage who could not speak but expressed himself beautifully through his paintings and drawings.
Through our charitable activities at the festival, we set an example of goodwill, and give rise to a miracle of love that emanates from the hearts of many people.”
Three films created at the Convent's studio have received awards and a certificate of recognition at a film festival in Kiev.