For much of the Western world, Christmas is on December 25th. That is the day everyone tears open Christmas presents, devours delicious meals, and celebrates Jesus’ birth. However, December 25th is not the only Christmas celebrated around the world. As a matter of fact, for many around the world, Christmas is on January 7th.
WHAT? Where? Explain.
There are sixteen countries around the world where the majority of the Christmas-celebrating population celebrated Christmas on January 7th. Most of these countries have a large population of Orthodox Christians, such as Greece, Ethiopia, Russia, and Egypt. So, for me as an American Coptic Christian (Christian with Egyptian roots), I get a second Christmas on January 7th.
So why do they celebrate Christmas on January 7th?
Basically, these countries use a different calendar for their traditional holidays. Today, we use the Gregorian calendar. Way back when, everyone used to use the Julian calendar. On the Julian calendar, Christmas WAS on December 25th, but when we changed to the Gregorian calendar, things got a little wonky. While the Gregorian calendar records a year as 365.2425 days, the Julian calendar is slightly less accurate with a recording of 365.25 days per year. This discrepancy leads to one less leap day every four hundred years or so. So over time, that leads to a large discrepancy – a thirteen day discrepancy. So in a way, Orthodox Christians still celebrate Christmas on December 25th
– just the December 25th of Julian calendar.
And just to throw out another curve ball…
So the discrepancy between the two calendars is not stable; it is still growing. Therefore, by the year 2100, Orthodox Christians will be celebrating Christmas on January 8th.
So why don’t they just change calendars and celebrate Christmas on December 25th?
Honestly, I’m not sure. In general, Orthodox Christians are very traditional people, so they could be quite reluctant to change the ways of their ancestors – especially just for another arbitrary date.
So are there Christmas traditions any different?
The traditions of Orthodox Christians vary by culture. In other words, Russian Orthodox Christians will have different Christmas traditions from Coptic (Egyptian) Orthodox Christians. (It’s basically the same as Italians having different Christmas traditions from Americans). However, these Orthodox Christians are all united by one thing: their common Christian denomination.
A typical Orthodox Christian Christmas consists of a midnight mass that begins on January 6th and ends on January 7th. In other words, you show up at the church at say 8:00 p.m. or 9:00 p.m. (there is only one service, because there is a rule that an altar can only be used once a day), and mass will finish just after midnight with a traditional communion. (Yes, it is quite a long mass.)
In addition, a “mass” is quite different from a typical Protestant or Baptist service. During a mass, the same words are said each time. Sometimes the St. Basil liturgy (kind of like the “script” I suppose) is used for mass, while other times another liturgy is used. There is only one factor of the Christmas liturgy that various by year: the short sermon by the priest. The sermon will discuss the Bible reading of the day, and, therefore, for Christmas, it will be on the birth of Jesus.
Communion may be a bit of a shocker. Only Orthodox Christians can take communion. The process may seem a bit odd at first. Everyone will line up, shoes off and napkin in hand (women also wear a head covering) to receive communion. When they reach the priest, he will place the piece of bread (which represents Christ’s body) into the mouth of each person before they are given a spoonful of watered-down wine (which represents Christ’s blood).
And, of course, there’s the food!
To finish up the Christmas festivities, there may be a gathering of the church members in a different room, where specific foods are served. For example, for Coptic (Egyptian) Orthodox Christmas, kahk, a type of butter-loaded, powdered sugar-covered cookie, is served. For Russian Orthodox Christmas, Christmas sochivo porridge is served.
So I guess Christmas isn’t only on December 25th.
Christmas is on January 7th too.