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Nativity Fast Tradition in Kerala, India

An Advent Reflection from board Member Jessy Jaison 

My childhood memories of Advent were colored by four classic practices in Eastern Christianity: making the manger in our living room, singing Christmas carols in our multi-faith neighbourhood, observing the discipline of nativity fast at home, and serving a delicious Christmas meal and distributing the New Testament to our non-Christian friends. Hailing from Kerala, the South Indian state with a Christian legacy dating back to St. Thomas’ arrival in 52 C.E., I had the privilege of being born and raised in a devote Christian family. My parents passionately instilled the meaning and faith foundation of these practices in my heart.

Manger making was a deeply reflective practice instilling in us the profound message: “Fear not; God is with us – Immanuel.” Carol singing was a joyous proclamation of Jesus’ arrival, echoing “Joy to the world… and peace on earth”. Nativity fast and prayer discipline was an act of personal submission and devotion to the new-born King, urged us to “Make room for Jesus in your heart.” Christmas meal and distribution of the Bible were expressions of love and care for the unbelievers and moreover, a memorable way of witnessing that “The Word became flesh and lived among us.”

Advent, originating from the Latin ‘adventus’, represents a twofold anticipation: the celebration of Jesus’ initial birth in Bethlehem and the eschatological promise of his second coming.  Some traditions also emphasize the advent of Christ in the heart of a believer, bridging the gap between the two comings.

The practice of the Nativity fast, spanning  24 days, holds a significant place within the Eastern Orthodox tradition in Kerala. In the local language of Malayalam, ‘fast’ is referred to as called ‘noyanbu’, a term derived from ‘novu’ (pain) and ‘anbu’ (love and mercy).  During this brief period of Lent leading up to Christmas, families abstain from meat, fish, egg, diary, and wine. This act is regarded as a noble means of preparing for Advent, as it involves a voluntary sacrifice for Jesus and a purification of the heart, mind and body.

What makes this tradition particularly beautiful is its capacity to inspire people to make these choices willingly, rather than feeling obligated. In light of the rapid growth of charismatic and Pentecostal renewal movements, fasting has become a more common practice among believers, leading them towards sanctification, surrender and a hopeful anticipation of Jesus’s second coming.

In the hospitable culture of Kerala, where the preparation of scrumptious meals can be time-consuming, Nativity fasting serves to redirect focus away from ourselves, allowing for more time devoted to prayer and care for the poor and marginalized in the society.

As the renowned Nobel laureate Mother Theresa once said, “At this Christmas, when Christ comes, will he find a warm heart? Mark the season of Advent by loving and serving others with God’s own love and concern.” Let us carry this timeless reminder in our hearts, especially during this Advent season, as we contemplate serving humanity that is suffering from war, hunger, displacement and wounds with the love of Jesus.