No, I’m not in denial, and you haven’t overslept.
If you read my piece last month about Christmas traditions around the world, you will have spotted an entry on the Orthodox Christian Christmas taking place in January. For most, that day is tomorrow, January 7th, in fact.
And that’s because
Those of us who celebrate Christmas on 25th December do so because we adhere to the Gregorian calendar, while Orthodox Christians celebrate 13 days later because they follow the Julian calendar.
Ever wondered why we have more than one calendar?
The short answer: Nowadays, the Gregorian calendar is used widely for civil purposes while the Julian calendar is retained for Orthodox religious purposes, i.e. feast days. In Islam, too, a different calendar is often used for religious purposes.
In a bit more detail: The Julian calendar was introduced by Julius Caesar in 45 BCE, replacing the Roman calendar which had gotten three months ahead of the solar calendar. He was advised by the Egyptian astronomer Sosigenes of Alexandria, who advised that 46 BCE should be 445 days long to rebalance things a bit. It took 54 years for the Julian calendar to be widely implemented however.
We have Sosigenes to thank for the need for a Gregorian calendar, because he got his maths slightly wrong on the length of a year – by 11 minutes 14 seconds. (It happens).
This seemingly tiny error in his calculations accrued over the centuries, meaning that by the mid-1500s the seasons were out by 10 days.
So in 1582 Pope Gregory XIII introduced the Gregorian calendar, reducing the calendar year from 365.25 to 365.2425 days, with the leap day becoming 29th February. It still doesn’t completely align with the solar year, but it’s pretty close.
While Italian and German Catholic states, Portugal, Spain and other Catholic countries adopted the Gregorian calendar almost immediately, other countries took longer to switch. England and its colonies didn’t make the change until 1752 for example.
Nowadays, the Gregorian calendar is the accepted calendar almost everywhere in the world, especially for civil purposes, but for Eastern Orthodox religious purposes especially, the Julian calendar has remained in use.
As far as I can tell, this is because a 1923 special council meeting of Orthodox Christian leaders from various countries couldn’t all agree on whether to join the Gregorian calendar or not.
And because it would have caused more problems to have two sets of dates for movable feasts each year, Orthodox churches stuck to all following the Julian calendar – even within countries that follow the Gregorian calendar.
Who celebrates Christmas on 7th January?
Christmas Day is a public holiday in Belarus, Egypt, Ethiopia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Macedonia, Moldova, Montenegro, Serbia, Russia, and Ukraine. In Armenia, 6th January is Christmas Day.
How will they celebrate?
In all sorts of varied and colourful ways, too many to mention here!
But scroll on for some facts about events and celebrations around the world that I’ve uncovered. Undoubtedly this year will be very subdued, but I’m sure with some hope mixed in too.
In Russia, where 71% of the country identifies as Orthodox Christian, Christmas holidays begin on 1st January, culminating for many in a six course meal on Christmas Day (which I could totally get on board with…). Popular dishes include goulash soup or, to break Advent’s meatless fast, baked goose with apples, or meat pies.
Next door, in Ukraine
Carolling is a big part of a Ukrainian Christmas, often involving dressing up and going door to door. For anyone planning some distanced song-singing, the forecast for the country’s capital Kiev (Kyiv) tomorrow is a balmy 4°C, incidentally.
In Kiev itself, the beautiful and grand 11th Century St Sophia’s Cathedral, with its golden blur of mosaic and fresco interiors, is a focal point of celebrations (pictured above).
More intrinsic to the nation’s expression of itself at Christmas is a tradition centring around grain.
As an agricultural product and a foodstuff, it’s a big deal in Ukraine. I had never considered this till now, but the yellow and blue of the Ukrainian flag symbolise wheat fields against blue skies – that’s how important grain is.
During most Ukrainian Christmas celebrations, it is therefore common to bring a sheaf of wheat, called a didukh, indoors. It strikes me as a nod to what we might think of as pagan traditions, crossing over with Christian. If you’ve got some wheat handy, you can have a go at making your own.
Over in Ethiopia
Christmas in Ethiopia is known as Ganna or Genna, very much focused on tradition and ceremony.
White is the traditional colour to wear, including the Netela scarf.
Celebrations normally take place all over Ethiopia, but they are especially significant in Lalibela, home of the famous ancient churches built into the steep sheer rocky landscape, a UNESCO World Heritage site. I would love to witness processions there one day.
Northwards, in Egypt
The Coptic Church started in Egypt and is one of the oldest churches in Christianity. Egypt is a Muslim-majority country of course, with Christians making up about 10%. However, I’ve read that pretty much everyone in the country, whether Muslim, Christian or secular, buys a Christmas tree and decorations are a big thing too.
According to dw.com, most of the trees come from Alexandria or, slightly further afield, Amsterdam.
The country’s Coptic Christians, having fasted for up to 43 days (as is customary in many Orthodox countries), usually attend mass in the evening on 6th January.
I’ve read also that it’s tradition to distribute Zalabya honey doughnuts and Bouri fish to the poor on Christmas Day. I hope that’s able to happen in some form tomorrow.
Here’s a good-looking recipe for doughnuts you could try.
Big is best in Bethlehem
Ordinarily, tens of thousands of tourists flock to Bethlehem in December and January each year. Instead, this year’s Orthodox Christmas in the holy city will be spent under a strict curfew, with no international tourists and many empty hotels.
I asked my aunt and uncle (a minister) what Bethlehem is like in winter and whether it ever snows there. They told me that when they visited in 1992, there was record snowfall for 16 days! And it’s not uncommon for there to be snow every few years there apparently, so perhaps Jesus really was born in winter after all…
Whether ceremonies and processions are taking place or not, the Church of the Nativity (on Manger Square) will always be central to Bethlehem’s importance at Christmas, it being the site where Jesus is said to have been born.
It is owned by three church authorities, the Greek Orthodox, the Armenian Apostolic and the Roman Catholic Church. The Coptic Orthodox and Syriac (aka Syrian) Orthodox Churches also have rights of worship.
Perhaps counter-intuitively to their overarching aims, scuffles are often said to break out between the churches, such is the importance of the site to so many people, and the Palestinian police are often called to restore the peace.
But back to Orthodox Christmas…
In the lead up to midnight mass on 6th January, a procession from Jerusalem to Bethlehem usually travels via Beit Sahour, known as Shepherd’s Fields. It is said that Jesus’s birth was announced by the angel to The Three Shepherds there. (Meanwhile, in ‘the West’, 6th January marks Epiphany, when the Three Magi learn about Jesus in the bible.)
On 7th January itself, sights and sounds on Star Street, leading onto Manger Square would involve the 15 metre-high Christmas tree with marching bands of Palestinian scout groups parading by, heads of churches and dignitaries arriving to the Church of the Nativity and Christmas carols playing through loudspeakers in Arabic.
Hope for the future
In 2019, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, tourism in Bethlehem increased by 15%. So there’s hope that the hotels (and I hope inns) that currently stand empty around Manger Square will be full up once more, when travel is safe again.
Whether you believe in the Christmas story or not, the colour, vibrancy and beliefs of millions of people around the world is something to look forward to experiencing in person again soon.