While most of you reading this have already packed away the tree and decorations, today we celebrated Christmas! This is our first Christmas in the Orthodox Church, and it looks a little different. The biggest difference is the date. Many orthodox churches still follow and use the old Julian calendar.
The Julian calendar replaced the Roman calendar in 46 BC. It was the first calendar that used 365 days worth a leap year in February every 4 years. But there was also an extra month added between February and March on occasion, consisting of 22 days. It was very complicated and if you want to know more you can read this article here: https://orthodoxwiki.org/Julian_Calendar. I tried to summarise it but that would be a monumental task.
This calendar was the one in effect during the time of Jesus, the Apostles, and the early church. It continued in Western Europe and the Roman Empire until the year 1584. But over time too many and/or too few of the intercalations or leap days had been added/removed, causing the calendar to once again be noticeably misaligned with the tropical year. It was agreed that once again the calendar needed reform. Pope Gregory XIII decreed the changes and some major math was performed, including going straight from October 4th to October 15th. Unfortunately this took some time to catch on across the world. England and it’s colonies didn’t start using the new Gregorian calendar until 1752. Sweden waited until 1823, and Russia only switched in 1918 after the Bolshevik Revolution.
So why now, in 2022, do many Orthodox churches still follow the Julian calendar when it comes to holidays and feast days? Well, that’s also kinda complicated. Some say it’s because there was no ecumenical council to decide on the calendar, while others say it’s mostly due to the respect for tradition. In 1923 a Revised Julian calendar was proposed at a council meeting in Constantinople that would re-align the dateswith the Gregorian calendar. However the leap days were managed differently, and the date of Pascha (Easter), remained there same according to the date set by the First Ecumenical Council. Unfortunately there dioceses disagreed on this calendar as well. The churches in Greece, Antioch, Constantinople, Alexandria, Bulgaria, Romania, Albania, Estonia, the Czech lands, and Slovakia decided to follow the Revised Julian calendar and therefore celebrate Nativity on December 25th with the rest of the Catholic and Protestant world. On the other hand, there churches in Russia, Serbia, Ukraine, Poland, Jerusalem, and Japan, continued to use the old Julian calendar and celebrate on January 7th. The only church that has switched to the Gregorian calendar is Finland.
So there you have a brief synopsis of the old calendar debate and why we celebrate on the 7th. For clarity, I’ve been referring to December 25th as Christmas and January 7th as Nativity. But for all my Tennessee friends and family currently enjoying the snow today: you really do have a White Christmas for once! And so do we up in Montana!
Now onto the fun part: how we celebrate! We had two services yesterday, one in the morning and a 2.5 hour vigil in the evening. In between hymns we read through the entire Christmas story across all four Gospels. They were both beautiful services that built the excitement for today’s service. Today we held a traditional Divine Liturgy service similar to what we do each Sunday, with the Gospel reading on the story of the three Magi. Like all Divine Liturgy services, it culminated in the Holy Eucharist, never forgetting the sacrifice even when celebrating the birth. And afterwards, we feasted!
Much how the Lent fast precedes Easter, we’ve been fasting the past 40 days for Nativity. I’ll do another post on fasting later, but for now I’ll say that most of us in the church have been abstaining from meat (except for seafood, and fish is permitted on Sundays), dairy, eggs, and alcohol (except for weekends) for the past 40 days. Mitch and I have not been able to follow this 100% because we’ve been traveling and staying at other people’s homes, and there is always grace in those circumstances. But even with the little we were able to do, how joyous it was to feast today in celebration of Christ’s birth! Meat and cheese were center stage, and there was an abundance of food for everyone. Our Church always has a fellowship meal after the service, but today’s lunch felt extra festive and joyous.
Most of the hymns were sang in the services are Orthodox hymns, predating what most people associate with Christmas hymns. But today we ended with Joy to the World, and in the middle of lunch we were surprised with a performance of Good King Wenceslas, which included our priest!
After we ate and talked to our heartis’ content, we went back to the friends’ house where we are currently staying and took a well earned nap!
All in all it was an amazing first Nativity feast day! We are really hoping to still be in Ukraine next year to experience it over there in 2023. But for now we are still basking in the joy of this season. Christ is born!