Inside Alhambra's Serbian Orthodox Church
Looming over Fremont Avenue are the Byzantine gold domes of St. Steven’s Serbian Orthodox Church, where hundreds of faithful worship each Sunday from all around the Southland. Alhambra Source caught up with Father Nicholas Ceko, a son of immigrants who fled the Communists after World War II and the dean of St. Steven’s for the past 18 years. Father Nick shared why a Serbian Orthodox cathedral was constructed in Alhambra, who the real St. Nick was, and why his church celebrates Christmas 13 days after the Western observance.
The Serbian population of Alhambra is officially almost non-existent. How did a Serbian Orthodox cathedral end up here?
Orthodox Serbs from the Balkans came to America starting in the middle of the 19th century. The first Serbian Orthodox communities in California were established in Jackson, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. During World War II, a tremendous expansion of industry took place, bringing with it waves of people from throughout the United States. This increase in population had its effects on the Serbian Orthodox community, which doubled and in some instances, tripled in size. It was at this time that the first Orthodox Church in Southern California, Saint Sava Parish in Los Angeles, was no longer adequate to handle the ever-growing demands alone. Saint Steven’s was founded in 1946 as a bridge to Serbs’ heritage in their new homeland, and they bought the land for the new church in Alhambra in 1948.
This particular location was picked for several reasons. Traditionally, Orthodox churches were built on tops of hills, to be looked up literally and spiritually. In addition, many founding members were contractors in Los Angeles and knew that this area would become a transportation hub. Plus it's a beautiful location!
The church was named after the first crowned king of Serbia, who became a monk after his 13th century reign—a piece of his relic is in the church. It is a cathedral (where the bishop resides and worships) and the home to the Western American Diocese, a region encompassing all the states west of Colorado and Mexico. Church membership includes more than 500 families, some of them third-generation Serbian-Americans. It has broadened over the years to include other ethnicities and many converts from other faiths. Members commute from as far north as Ventura south to San Clemente.
January 7 is the calendar day your church observes Christmas instead of December 25. Why is that?
We actually do celebrate Christmas on December 25, but we use the Julian Calendar. Humanity has come a long way in the knowledge of our solar system since the time of Cesar, making revisions and corrections to the calendar which is why the "New Style" Julian Calendar, popularly called the Gregorian Calendar is used not only as our civil calendar, but also by the Church in the West as well as by most Orthodox Churches today for both fixed and moveable feasts. For other Orthodox like the Serbian and Russian Orthodox, we still use the “Old Style” Julian Calendar.
When Christmas became its own separate celebration in the 4th century, Christians chose the December 25 date as an intentional polemic to the pagan sun god cult called the “Nativity of the Invincible Sun” (Sol Invictus) that was celebrated on that day. When pagans accepted Christianity, it was only natural that the Church gave significance to a day that was already special for many of its new members. This polemic against astral worship and the biblical image in the prophetic writings of the “Sun of Righteousness” as an image for Jesus is woven into our main hymn sung on Christmas:
Your Nativity, O Christ our God, has shown the light of knowledge upon the world; for thereby those who worshipped the stars were instructed by a star to worship You, the Sun of Righteousness, and to know You, the Dayspring from on high. O Lord, glory be to You! [Emphasis by the author]
Can you share about who the real St. Nicholas was and why he’s important around Christmas time?
St. Nicholas lived in the 4th century and was the archbishop of Myra in Lycia (in modern-day Turkey). Through the centuries, Saint Nicholas has come to be especially connected with the birth of Christ. The stories of this saint all tell of a man who is known only for his goodness and love. He was well known for helping the poor and doing so secretly. Like God, and like Jesus, Saint Nicholas was genuinely good. His life is a testimony that shows us that human beings can be genuinely good with God’s own goodness. Orthodox Christians believe that this is why the Messiah has come, so that people can really be good, and one of the greatest and most loved human examples of Godly goodness is Saint Nicholas. This is why he remains, even in his secularized form, the very spirit of Christmas.
The Christmas season in the Orthodox Church begins with a 40-day fasting period, where we encourage the faithful to abstain from eating meat and dairy products and to focus more on prayer and charity. The goal is to prepare yourself, body and soul, to accept Christ born again in your heart and soul on Christmas, as a “personal manger.” Not focusing on food and its preparation frees people to the spiritual actions of prayer and acting charitably. Sometimes I encourage people to write a letter to someone they haven’t seen for a while or visit the sick as part of their fast. St. Nicholas’ example is a reminder and inspiration to the faithful to embrace the active side of fasting.
What is a Serbian Christmas tradition you still observe?
At our Christmas Eve Service, in addition to the Scripture readings, hymns and prayers in preparation for the Holy Eucharist on Christmas, we burn a Yule log (another pre-Christian tradition adapted into Christian practice). Traditionally oak is used because it gives the most light and most intense heat. It reminds them of Christ as the light of the world who brings the warmth of God to humanity.
St. Steven’s Serbian Orthodox Cathedral is located at 1621 West Garvey Avenue, Alhambra, CA 91803
Interview was edited and condensed.