This year, are you confused about when we celebrate Christmas: 25th or 7th? The war in Ukraine has caused such havoc in the world that perhaps we begin to question even our own knowledge. Rumours are circulating that the “old calendar” is not Ukrainian, but only Russian and we must switch to December 25th. Not true!
Let’s start with a few facts:
- The Church calendar is actually two calendars, one superimposed on the other. One is the calendar of ‘fixed’ feasts that have a specific date, such as Christmas, our parish feast of the Transfiguration, etc. The other is the cycle of moveable feasts that change in relation to the date of Easter in a given year. Easter changes because it is calculated based on the moon’s cycle. Therefore, Pentecost is always 7 Sundays after Easter, Ascension is always the 40th day after Easter, etc.
- Why don’t all Christians celebrate together? The answer is politics and history. In the first two centuries of Christianity, when Christians started commemorating events in Christ’s life, they did not have all the feastdays we have now. We know that soon after Christ’s resurrection they celebrated Easter—at the time of the Jewish Passover. However, Christians did not commemorate Christ’s early life until the 3rd or 4th c. On January 6th they had a special feast which tied together His birth, circumcision, and most especially His baptism in the Jordan. The high point of this celebration was the Great Blessing of the Waters. Gradually, in the Roman Empire, the birth of Christ received its own day: Dec. 25. Christmas was born! (The Armenian Church to this day only celebrates January 6, because they were not part of the Roman Empire when the change was made.) Similarly, when Pope Gregory XIII in 1582 chose to update the calendar based on the newest astronomical information, that change only affected the Roman Catholic countries. Protestant and Orthodox countries kept the older calendar established in 45 BCE by Julius Caesar. Many of those churches moved to the Gregorian calendar gradually from the 18th to the 20th century. There is a 13 day ‘lag’ between the newer Gregorian (now civil) calendar and the older Julian. Therefore, although our liturgical books all have Dec. 25 as the day of Christmas, that date falls 13 days after Dec. 25 on the civil calendar!
- Can we change to the Gregorian (civil) calendar? So far, ongoing discussions among churches have been unsuccessful. In Ukraine today there is talk about moving to the Gregorian calendar, however Patriarch Svyatoslav has, wisely, stated that there are three factors to consider: 1) a change is about the entire calendar, not just Christmas. 2) “we cannot make this kind of change on our own, separate from the entire church community. Christmas is a feast of all our people, our entire Church. It is very important to celebrate together and to rejoice together”; 3) “when the house is burning, it is not time to discuss which wall the icon should hang on. It is essential for all our efforts now to be turned to the victory of Ukraine.”
Our community has maintained the Julian calendar and we celebrate Christ’s birth on Jan. 7th with the traditions we have inherited from our forebears. May we greet this mystery of God’s incarnation with deepening hope, faith, and love.