Two Christmases

8 January 2018, 23:28 | Andrew Sorokowski's column | 0 |   | Code for Blog |  | 

Andrew Sorokowski

Shifting Orthodox Christmas to December would symbolize a distancing from the Russian Orthodox Church and thus from Russia herself. It would mean a rapprochement with the West...

Ukraine’s decision to give workers a day off for both December 25 and January 7 makes sense as a temporary measure. In the long run, however, Ukraine’s churches will have to decide on which date to celebrate Christmas. This will have political and cultural implications as well as religious ones.

There are two issues regarding the date of Christmas: state policy and church policy. Ukraine shares the state policy of recognizing two dates for Christmas with Belarus, Eritrea, Lebanon, and Moldova. Belarus and Moldova are predominantly Eastern Orthodox. Eritrea’s Coptic Christians are Oriental Orthodox. Lebanon has both Eastern and Oriental Orthodox as well as Eastern-rite Catholic (Syrian, Maronite, and Melchite) churches, and seeks to honor the major holy days of all its religious groups. From the point of view of the state, it is convenient to accommodate both Christians who celebrate the birth of Christ on December 25, and those who do so on January 7.

Nearly all Christian churches agree on the celebration of Christmas on December 25, as decided in the fifth century (the exception is the Armenian Apostolic Church, which combines the celebrations of Christmas and Epiphany on January 6). The problem is that some of these churches, notably the Russian, Georgian, and Serbian Orthodox, follow the Julian calendar, according to which December 25 falls on the day that, according to the civil calendar used in most of the world, is currently designated January 7.

The “Gregorian calendar” used by most modern states is simply an updated and fine-tuned version of the Julian calendar used since Roman times. In 1582, under Pope Gregory XIII, Vatican astronomers noticed that their Julian calendar had fallen ten days behind the astronomical calendar based on the relative position of the earth and the sun. So they corrected the calendar, skipping over the ten-day gap in October 1582.

Because this calendar reform had originated in the Catholic Church, Protestant and Orthodox states resisted it. This made about as much sense as rejecting Copernicus’ heliocentric theory because it had been developed by a Catholic priest. But gradually, the “Gregorian calendar” was accepted throughout Europe and its colonies. The British Empire, for example, adopted it in 1752. It was only in 1918, under the Bolsheviks, that Russia reformed its state calendar. Independent Ukraine did so in February-March 1918. Other predominantly Orthodox countries did likewise.

But the churches did not always follow suit. While most Protestant churches eventually reformed their calendars, the Russian and some other Orthodox churches cling to the unreformed Julian calendar. In 1923, a “reformed Julian calendar” was developed, with Christmas on December 25. Several Orthodox Churches, notably the Greek, Bulgarian, and Romanian Orthodox, now celebrate on that date.

Today, the issue of whether to celebrate Christmas on December 25 or January 7 has undeniable political implications. Shifting Ukrainian Orthodox Christmas to December would symbolize a distancing from the Russian Orthodox Church and thus from Russia herself. It would mean a rapprochement with the West, in political and cultural as well as religious terms. True, it might also facilitate the commercialization of the holiday, as we see in many Western countries. On the other hand, it could help Ukraine’s Orthodox to solidarize with and support European Christians in their efforts to maintain the religious character of Christmas.

For the moment, Ukraine’s decision to recognize both holidays is prudent. In the long run, however, it could be spiritually disorienting. Having “two Christmases” smacks of “double-think.” It tends to relativize the holiday, weakening its significance. Ultimately, the churches – Greco-Catholic as well as Orthodox – will have to make a decision. Will they readjust their calendar to the divine order, realigning Christmas with the winter solstice, the lengthening days, and the symbolic victory of the “sun of truth” over the powers of darkness? That would certainly betoken their respect for Creation.

If all of Ukraine’s churches accepted the “Gregorian” (or “reformed Julian”) calendar, the Ukrainian state could then observe Christmas on December 25 only, abolish the January 7 holiday, and perhaps compensate for it by adding a free day for some other important Christian feast like Theophany (Epiphany). This would plant Ukraine firmly in the company of European nations. By eliminating the ambiguity of two state holidays, it would also strengthen her Christian identity.

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