Intercultural Christmas wishes –  A religious overview – Part 2

How did the Christian faith come into existence and why are there subgroups?

The roots of Christianity are in Judaism in Israel at the beginning of the 1st century, which was Roman at that time. The followers of the Jewish walking preacher, Jesus of Nazareth, saw in him after his crucifixion and subsequent resurrection the Son of God and the Messiah, as expected by Judaism.

Judaism and Christianity are particularly related to the first part of the Bible. The Old Testament of Christians corresponds to the Jewish holy scripture the Tanakh. Today about one-third of all people in the world belong to Christianity, 22% are Muslims and 13% are Hindus.

In the ancient world, there were five Christian patriarchates in Rome, Antioch (today’s Turkey) Constantinople (today’s Istanbul), Alexandria and Jerusalem, which were each subordinate to the archbishops and bishops. If one wanted to decide on essential teaching questions, a meeting of bishops, a council, was convened.

Within Christianity, various ecclesiastical tendencies soon arose through various political motives or geographical conditions in the Latin West and the Greek East.

In the following centuries, the so-called Eastern and Western traditions developed and finally came to break after the Council of Ephesus (431) and after the Council of Chalcedon (451). The Western tradition was further profoundly divided by the Reformation in 1517. These divisions led to several parallel church formations and new groupings:


The Eastern Tradition

The patriarchates have hardly changed until today and have had the same theology for centuries. They see themselves as part of the original church founded by Jesus Christ. The religious traditions dating back to the early Christian times are very different in the individual churches.

Roughly, one can divide the Eastern tradition into the following churches:

  • Serbian Orthodox Church: The territory of the former Yugoslavia is governed by the Patriarchate in Belgrade. Most believers are Serbs.
  • Greek Orthodox (Byzantine Orthodox) Church: Is the church of Greece and Cyprus. Greek Orthodox couples may divorce and marry up to three times.
  • Coptic Orthodox or Oriental Orthodox Church: Believers live in Egypt, a few in Libya and the Sudan. The Coptic Church attaches great importance to youth work and its social services. Education plays a big role.
  • Assyrian Church of the East: This Church of the East disintegrated in 424, before the Council of Ephesus, from the Roman Church. Today, the Russian Orthodox Church is the largest Orthodox Church.
  • Eastern Catholic Church: It’s like a particular church of the Roman Catholic Church, living according to Eastern Church rites.


Western tradition

From about 500 AD, the doctrine developed that the Bishop of Rome has an authority directly attributed to the teaching of the Apostle Peter, thus making him the substitute Christian.

Around 1500, theologians in various places in Europe called for reforms in the Catholic Church. It was the separation of the Western Church into a Protestant tradition, which broke away from Rome and the Roman Catholic Church, which remained in Rome.


Roman Catholic tradition

The Holy Catholic Church sees itself as the wandering people under the guidance of the Pope. Around 1.1 billion believers belong to this faith worldwide. Through the first sacrament, baptism, one is admitted in the Christian community. The most important Catholic values are love, chastity, faithfulness, truth, justice, non-violence, renunciation of possession.


Protestant tradition and the subgroups

The Augustinian monk Martin Luther erected 95 theses in 1517 after several years of development. He resolutely opposed celibacy and married Katharina von Bora.

In Austria, the Protestant faith is taught according to two principles: the Augsburg Confession (A.B.) and the Helvetic Confession (H.B.).


Free Church

The members of the Protestant Free Church refuse to belong to a “state church”, they are the defenders of a clear separation of church and state and deny also the financing of the church over the church tax. The Free Church expects its members of the appropriate age, a conscious entry into the church.


Seventh-Day Adventists

Doctrine is formally described by 28 points of belief, but these are not static but can be changed through a plenary assembly. They understand the human body as a divine house and pay attention to a healthy lifestyle. Many Adventists are vegetarian and also avoid alcohol and tobacco.


Apostolic communities or the New Apostolic Church go back to the revival movements, the reoccupation of the apostleship around 1825.

Neo-religious communities are groups that do not see themselves in Orthodox, Catholic, or Protestant tradition, such as the Mormons, Bible Students, the Unification Church, and the Jehovah’s Witnesses.


However, all the confessions mentioned above, have the following doctrines in common:

  • There is only one God and this one symbolizes the Holy Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit
  • Jesus Christ is the Son of God
  • The most important thing for living as a Christian is the love of God and charity
  • The Holy Bible is the spiritual guidance for Christians.
  • Through the Immaculate Conception Mary gave birth to Jesus.

Intercultural Christmas wishes –  A religious overview – Part 1

I teach in a private Catholic school on the outskirts of Vienna.

This new middle school has got 11 classes and about 240 students and 30 teachers. We are a training school for students who want to become teachers, including prospective religious teachers.

In this Catholic school, we celebrate all major Christian festivals together, such as Easter, Pentecost and Christmas. About once a month we convene in our school chapel and sing and pray together.

Because I did a research in English at the University of applied science, I interviewed the children how they celebrate Christmas with their families. I didn’t only get an insight into the various celebration cultures of my students, but I also got an overview of the different directions of the Christian faith. A few of my students are also Muslims, but some of them have also an interesting way of celebrating Christmas in Vienna. After I interviewed my students, I made a movie with them and with all the information I had. This video was even shown on our school homepage. Unfortunately, you are not authorised to watch the video because of protection of privacy of my students.

The majority of children are baptized Roman Catholic. But unlike the assumption, there is not everywhere the typical Christmas menu with goose, fish or maybe fondue. The trend is towards burgers, spaghetti and kebab. And some families do not sing in the evening but watch TV together. However many children go to church with their parents.

Like the roman catholic Devine from Ivory Coast. She is celebrating with her entire extended family, first in the church and then until late into the night they make music and sing songs together.

Matthias is Roman Catholic. He is the only one in his father’s family with this faith. His father was born in Turkey but belongs to the ethnic minority of the Aramaeans and they still speak Aramaic. The Aramaeans of the present are the descendants of the ancient Aramaeans, who lived in the area of today’s Syria and are now a part of the Orthodox Church. Matthias’ family celebrates with about 300 people in a large rented hall in Vienna with many different Aramaic dishes and Aramaic music until the early morning hours.

Our Protestant classmates tend not to go to church with their families, they prefer to sing Christmas carols and celebrate at home. They eat traditional Christmas dishes such as fish and poultry. Aidan and Melanie tell me how they spend the evening. Their Nigerian father is Catholic and their Swiss mother is Protestant. They used to be in the Catholic Church for the Christmas Mass, but since there is a Protestant church built nearby, they go there on Christmas Eve.

Jacob has 12 siblings, four of them attend our school. Originally the family comes from Romania and at Christmas, they go there by car. The family joins a big church celebration with all members their extended family. Jacob belongs to the Free Church, so does his classmate Ester, who has almost got as many siblings as he has. Until recently, they attended Protestant religious education lectures, but since the beginning of this school year, there are separate lessons for them. The families of the free church visit the parish with their children several times a week. This parish of Jacob and Ester has about 2000 members. Some adults afford valuable youth work, the children receive music lessons, play or do something together. The Christmas Mass takes place at 4 p.m. with many children.

Katerina and her family come from Greece, their parents run a Greek restaurant in the 21st district in Vienna. On December 24th the family celebrate together with their Greek employees and their families in the restaurant with a huge Christmas tree. But Katerina doesn’t have a tree at home.

The Coptic Orthodox Shenouda occasionally flies to Egypt to visit the rest of his family at Christmas. In any case, they visit the church and eat together in a restaurant.

The few Islamic children do not celebrate Christmas. However, some of the families have an Advent calendar and they hand over gifts on December 24th. Lana is a Syrian refugee child, who is living with her family at the place of a Viennese couple for two years.

One month ago, on December 12th, Cardinal Archbishop Christoph Schönborn was a guest of ours at school. The choir of our school gave him a warm welcome. Some classes wrote poems and created nice posters for him. Later he patiently answered questions of the students, which were not only religious ones but also partly very personal. At the end of his stay, he prayed with us and gave us his blessings. It was a touching experience for all attendee.