By D. Oliver Herbel
When most of us think of religious discussions surrounding Christmas, we likely think of debates about the “real meaning,” warnings against materialism, or to what extent the holiday is “pagan.” For Orthodox Christians, the question of when to celebrate Christmas is also a hot topic. This is especially the case in America.
Historically, the Orthodox Churches have celebrated religious holidays according to the Julian Calendar, the calendar introduced by Julius Caesar. In 1582, the Gregorian Calendar was introduced by Pope Gregory XIII and became the basis for the civil calendar we use today. In 1923, a synod at Constantinople decided to accept the newer Gregorian Calendar as the basis for holidays with fixed dates but to keep the older means of calculating Easter (aka “Pascha”). Many Orthodox Churches did not accept this decision, meaning most Orthodox Christians continue to celebrate Christmas on the 25th of December of the Julian Calendar, which falls on the 7th of January of the Gregorian Calendar. A sizable minority, which now includes most Orthodox Christians in America, celebrate it at the same time as Western Christians. This difference has occasionally led to intense debates between Orthodox Christians, with some believing the revision was a plot intended to force unification with the Roman Catholic Church while others have argued against such a position. The debate has played out not only online but also over coffee in parish halls and at kitchen tables.
In American Orthodoxy, however, the debate centers not on whether the 1923 decision was a conspiracy but on variations of two of the discussions I noted above as common to many other American Christians—the real meaning of Christmas and the materialism surrounding the holiday. To be sure, an argument for the 7th of January dating is often made by appealing to ethnic traditions (Russian, Serbian, etc.) surrounding the celebration of Christmas, but that is not the total sum. Often, the debate is whether celebrating Christmas on the 7th of January protects one (at least to some degree) from the forces of secularism and/or materialism. An argument to the affirmative is sometimes heard from those who nostalgically think back upon a time when their churches held Christmas on the 7th of January. This is because the pattern of American Orthodox generally shifting to the 25th of December was something that occurred over time during the 20th century, not immediately in 1923. With many parishes of Russian and Ukrainian heritage retaining the 7th of January date, such Orthodox Christians can even look wistfully upon some of their neighbors. A date separate from the commercialism that surrounds the 25th of December has even been attractive to non-Orthodox who decide to join the Orthodox Church. This has been the case, for instance, with Orthodox converts who entered Orthodoxy with a desire to join the ancient Christian church. In the case of converts from a new age group known as the Holy Order of MANS, this desire began with an attempt to “restore” that vision of ancient Christianity.
Not all converts who have desired to restore (or find) ancient Christianity have desired a separate date for Christmas, of course. In fact, most have not, but they do share a desire to argue for a Christmas season that is “traditional” and focused on celebrating the birth of Jesus. This, I think, is perhaps an important aspect to remember when reflecting upon Orthodox Christians and their two dates for Christmas: in America, whichever date an Orthodox Christian may happen to argue for, he or she is likely to include position statements not so different from his or her non-Orthodox Christian counterpart (the fringe conspiracy theorists about enforced union notwithstanding). Whether Orthodox Christians in America celebrate the holiday on the 25th of December or 7th of January, they share many of the same concerns, desires, and even patterns of behavior as the rest of their American neighbors. Indeed, in some cases, preferring the 7th of January can be a most American expression.
D. Oliver Herbel holds a doctorate in historical theology from Saint Louis University. He is the author of Sarapion of Thmuis: Against the Manichaeans, Pastoral Letters and Turning to Tradition: Converts and the Making of an American Orthodox Church, as well as articles and book chapters, many of which concentrate on Orthodox Christianity in America. He currently serves as the priest of Holy Resurrection Orthodox Church in Fargo, ND, and as a chaplain in the North Dakota Air National Guard.
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Image Credit: Photo of Theotokos “Unexpected Joy” Orthodox Church in Ash Grove, MO, courtesy of Fr Moses Berry.