The Scoop on “Orthodox Christmas”

You undoubtedly heard or read at least one reference today to this being “Orthodox Christmas.” One of my cousins posted this article on his Facebook page; it’s typical of the misunderstanding that exists about January 7th being “Orthodox Christmas.”

Orthodox Christmas 2015: Russian, Greek and Other Eastern Churches Begin Celebrations

Some of the information in this article is correct. However, the following statements are grossly incorrect:

Most Orthodox traditions, including the Russian and Greek Orthodox and Ethiopian and Egyptian Coptic churches, celebrate the Christmas holiday on Jan. 6 and 7. These dates are known as “Old Christmas Day” because of its original designation as the day of Jesus’ birth by the first Christian Roman emperor, Constantine in 325 A.D., according to the Jerusalem Post. After Pope Gregory XIII switched the earlier Julian Calendar to the new date system in 1582, which became known as the Gregorian Calendar, the Catholic church moved its Christmas celebrations 13 days ahead to Dec. 25, a shift that was not adopted by much of the Eastern Church, which never recognized the primacy of the pope.

While many Orthodox churches eventually adopted the Gregorian calendar, they kept Jan. 6 as the date of their Christmas Eve celebrations.

First of all, the Jerusalem Post is not exactly a reliable source of information about Orthodox practice. I wouldn’t even trust the Jerusalem Post for information on Orthodox Judaism, never mind Orthodox Christianity! The reference to the emperor Constantine arises from confusion about what exactly was celebrated as Epiphany on January 6th in the early centuries of the Church. Was it a celebration of the baptism of Jesus or also an observance of the birth of Christ? There are various interpretations of the evidence. But when St. Gregory Nazianzus preached his Homily on the Theophany around the year 380, it seems almost certain that Dec. 25th had been established as the celebration of Christ’s birth. The article is COMPLETELY WRONG in stating that the Catholic Church moved Christmas to Dec. 25th after the calendar reform of Pope Gregory in 1582! Neither the Catholic nor any Orthodox Church changed the date of Christmas to Dec. 25th in the 16th century. It was always Dec. 25th, at least as far back as the 4th century.

The usual theory is that Dec. 25th was chosen as the date of the Christmas celebration in order to counter the pagan celebration of the solar feast, Dies Natalis Solis Invicti (Birthday of the Unconquered Sun). When the Christian faith  increasingly became the religion of the Roman Empire, there began a campaign to eradicate pagan worship and practices. Converting pagan celebrations and buildings to Christian usage became standard practice. So if Christmas was ever moved from January to December 25th, it happened more than 1,000 years before Pope Gregory!

The further point that the article makes – “While many Orthodox churches eventually adopted the Gregorian calendar, they kept Jan. 6 as the date of their Christmas Eve celebrations” – is laughable. There is no Orthodox church that fits that description! The newspaper that printed this article, the International Business Times, should stick to reporting business.

Until Pope Gregory’s time, all Christian countries and churches followed the calendar that had existed since the time of Julius Caesar – hence the name Julian Calendar. The Julian Calendar was based on a year of 365 days, with a leap day in February every four years. The problem is that the actual, astronomical solar year is a few minutes shorter than the calendar year. As a result, the calendar slowly grew out of sync with the solar year. Pope Gregory, in consultation with astronomers, made a correction in the calendar to account for this discrepancy. Most European countries adopted the reformed calendar (which became known as the Gregorian Calendar) and so did the western churches. Orthodox churches refused to adopt the reformed calendar and stuck to using the Julian Calendar, partly because of anti-Catholic sentiments.

By the beginning of the 20th century, Greek-speaking churches started to adopt the Gregorian Calendar and a few others followed. However, the Russian and many other Orthodox churches refused to follow the move and stayed with the Julian Calendar. Hence the reason for Russians celebrating Christmas on January 7th. Even in Greece, many people refused the reformed calendar and continued to worship in churches that followed the Julian Calendar – hence the schism in Greece between the New Calendar and the Old Calendar. Have I confused you even more?

Here is the bottom-line: There are two calendars, the Julian and the Gregorian. For reasons of astronomy, the two calendars are about 13 days out of sync. Christmas is observed on December 25th in ALL Orthodox churches (except the Armenian Church, which continues to celebrate Christmas on the date of Epiphany, Jan. 6th=Jan. 19th). If you look in the liturgical books of the Russian Church, you won’t see Christmas on Jan. 7th. Christmas in the Russian Church is on December 25th. But because the Russian Church follows the Julian Calendar, which right now is 13 days behind the Gregorian Calendar, Russian Christmas appears to be on January 7th.

The day that is December 25th in the Julian Calendar happens to be January 7th in the Gregorian Calendar. That’s all there is to it. A hundred years from now, December 25th in the Julian Calendar will be on January 8th in the Gregorian Calendar. So, a hundred years from now, are people going to be saying January 8th is “Orthodox Christmas”? Do you see how ludicrous the whole thing is? And why God has probably given up on our foolishness?

Jesus was not born on Dec. 25th or Jan. 7th. Neither the Julian nor the Gregorian calendar has any divine sanction. The date of Christmas is secular, even pagan, in origin; and the calendar has more to do with astronomy than a virgin birth. So get real – that’s what I want to say to those individuals and churches who make an issue of the calendar and the date of Christmas!

5 Replies to “The Scoop on “Orthodox Christmas””

  1. Great piece Kostas, really clears thing up. I would not expect anything less from you, always brilliant!
    Your cousin

  2. “The day that is December 25th in the Julian Calendar happens to be January 7th in the Gregorian Calendar. That’s all there is to it. ”

    Ah, if only all thorny questions of belief, practice, history and theology could be explained with such mathematical clarity!

  3. I feel that both in the case of Pascha or Christmas having two dates is something positive. Or to borrow from the famous New York ad. “the feast that is so nice, we celebrate it twice”. 🙂 As you mentioned, no one really knows when the true date is, so as long as we are living the life of Christ, this is another occasion to reflect and celebrate being alive in Him.

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