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    MOSCOW, JANUARY 7, 2004, /RIA-NOVOSTI CORRESPONDENT/ -- The Russian Orthodox Church is celebrating Christmas today; as a matter of fact, Christmas is considered to be the second most important religious holiday after Easter Day here.

    Patriarch Alexius II of Moscow and All Russia is to conduct a vespers service at Moscow's cathedral of Christ the Savior, which is the main Russian cathedral, today. Christmas services will also be held at 218 other churches and cathedrals all over the Russian capital.

    Russian Orthodox Church believes that Christmas symbolizes the triumphant reconciliation between God and Man, anticipating Christ's redemptive feat, as well as the renewal of man's nature that was corrupted by his sinful forefathers.

    The Russian Orthodox Church's statute envisages a lengthy 40-day fast prior to January 6. Orthodox believers are not supposed to eat anything on January 6 until the evening, that is, until the first star rises.

    Lavish feasts were organized all over Mother Russia every January 7 before 1917, with children going from to house and using the so-called verteps (boxes covered with color paper and featuring swivel puppets) to stage puppet shows, i.e. Nativity plays. The young performers also sang during their shows, receiving gifts in return.

    Christmas services will be held in small and large Russian towns alike January 7; open-air parties, concerts and sports events will take place, as well.

    A theatrical Christmas performance will be held on the St. Basil incline near the Kremlin wall tonight, thus becoming the main local holiday event.

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