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Serbian Orthodox faithful celebrating Christmas today

When he was a boy, many of his classmates asked Bob Topich if he celebrates "Russian Christmas."

"I heard that remark many times as a kid. It's close, but does not quite hit the mark," said Topich, 51, of Franklin Park. He grew up in the South Side, where he was baptized in the old St. George Serbian Orthodox Church.

Today is Christmas in Western Pennsylvania's dozen or so Serbian Orthodox Churches, where the Nativity, or Rozdestvo Tvoje, will be proclaimed. Serbian flags were waved, traditional meals served and Yule logs blessed and burned on Friday night.

The Serbian Orthodox church follows the Julian calendar, in which Christmas falls 13 days later than the Gregorian calendar followed around the world.

"Mainly Orthodox Catholics of Ukrainian, Serbian, and 'Old Russian' origins celebrate Christmas on Jan. 7," said the Rev. Mark Swindle of Holy Virgin Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Arnold.

Swindle said he expected about 100 people to gather for services at 10 a.m. today.

Christmas festivities for most Americans are long over. Yet Serbian Orthodox Christmas celebrations are just as devout and festive as any other.

"Jan. 7 is more religious and more serious in some ways. It's not as commercial. That makes it easier to focus on the religious aspect of Christmas. We also get all the sales before (our) Christmas," said Sally Stone, who lives in the South Side and has been a member of Holy Trinity Serbian Orthodox Cathedral in Whitehall since it opened in 1971.

A member of the choir that Topich directs at Holy Trinity, Stone says she finds Christmas' deepest meaning in the unaccompanied music of chants and responses that she and other choir members sing at Christmas services.

"The music really gets you into it. It's my favorite part of Christmas," she said.

Like many Orthodox Christians, Stone and Topich have experienced a lifetime of celebrating Christmas later than many other Christians in the United States, even other Orthodox Christians.

"Dec. 25 is really just another day for us. Of course, that's the day that Santa Claus comes to town," Stone said.

Topich also regards Dec. 25 as "Santa Claus' Day," with an emphasis on the more secular aspects of Christmas. "It is not the spiritual day that Jan. 7 is for us," he said.

Even Holy Trinity's pastor of 11 years, Rev. Rajko Kosic, 43, finds himself at events on Dec. 25.

"We have so many friends with mixed marriages, people who have married Catholics. It's not unusual at all for me to get nice invitations to Christmas dinners or parties on Dec. 25," said Kosic, who grew up in Bosnia.

Many Orthodox Christians in the United States celebrate Christmas on Dec. 25.

"It is more convenient in many ways. Christmas in January can be a problem for families with college students who are back at school. But our forefathers celebrated Christmas on this calendar, and we going to continue to do that. We are trying to preserve our customs," Kosic said.

For Serbs like Milovan Jovanovic of Mars, Christmas will be a little bit of home.

"Other than more English, the church services are pretty much the same, all the same traditions and rituals," said Jovanovic, who is from Belgrade and moved to the United States last year.

He works at a small bookstore at the Serbian Orthodox Diocese of Eastern America in Mars.

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