Why is Eastern Orthodox Christmas in January?
If you were raised in the Western World, then you probably don’t have much experience with Eastern Orthodox Christianity. So you’ve probably notices a few quirks about Orthodox Christians.
And the quirkiest difference of all is that they celebrate Christmas on January 7th, rather than on December 25th.
Why is that?
Why is Eastern Orthodox Christmas in January?
Eastern Orthodox Christmas is in January because the Orthodox Church uses the Julian Calendar. Most Westerners use the Gregorian one. The Julian Calendar pre-dates the Gregorian one and places Christmas on January 7th.
So, what is the Julian Calendar, and why do the Orthodox use it?
Let’s go ahead and explore that.
What Is the Julian Calendar?
The Julian Calendar was the calendar used by the founders of the Christian Church. It was created in 46 BC when Julius Caesar decided to replace the old Roman Calendar. This was part of the cultural reforms he used to cement his legacy.
The Julian Calendar divides the year into twelve months and has 365 days. It adds an extra day every four years. The Calendar was used to replace the old Roman one. The old one accounted for only 355 days and sometimes inserted an extra month to correct itself.
The Roman calendar which predated the Julian one was designed in order to help the Romans coordinate their military activities so that their armies would not be on campaign during winter, when campaigns were more costly. This concession of calendrical accuracy in favor of military effectiveness was one fo the major problems Caesar tried to fix with his reform.
The fact that the Roman calendar was designed to plan good martial action meant that the extra year added to it could change in length each time it was placed.
Some Roman years even had more than 400 days!
So Julius Caesar had his astronomers correct this problem. They devised a calendar which corresponded to the length of time the earth took to move around the sun. This new one was more accurate than the calendar which had been fixated on the seasons.
So they produced a calendar with a 365.24 day year.
What Does the West Use the Gregorian Calendar?
There was a problem wit the Julian Calendar. It recognized the length fo the year as 365.24 days, but the year is actually slightly longer than that.
Eleven minutes longer, to be exact.
Now, in the time of the Romans, this minor discrepancy was probably known and disregarded as insignificant. Yet its effect was to set the calendar back by a day every 128 years.
So, over the course of many centuries, religious holidays were gradually pushed back from their traditional dates. This fact that the error in the Julian calendar was causing improper recognition of saints’ days, important observances within both the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches, and the two groups were faced with a conundrum.
They could choose to either change the calendar to account for the Julian Calendar’s small error, or they could keep it. Those who wanted to keep it argued that the calendar should be kept because Jesus and the Church Fathers had used the Julian one. hose who wanted to change the calendar desired to maintain religious holidays at their proper times.
Whenever these views were brought to a head, the Eastern Orthodox, being particularly averse to change, chose to keep the calendar. Meanwhile, the Roman Catholics, being a more practical lot, accepted the revision and produced the Gregorian Calendar. Peoples in the Protestant countries nearby then followed suit.
The Western World had started to adopt the Gregorian Calendar by 1582, and it spread quickly afterward.
The countries in which the Eastern Orthodox Church was active did not adopt the Gregorian Calendar, and they remained with the Julian until much alter. Eventually, Russia adopted the Gregorian Calendar after its communist revolution, and the Julian Calendar’s political role was over in 1923.
Why Is Eastern Orthodox Christmas in January? – The Orthodox Kept the Calendar
The governments of the Orthodox countries had all adopted the Gregorian Calendar by 1923, but most of the Orthodox churches kept it. A few councils were held to consider revising the calendar, but their results were… odd.
In 1923, a council was held in Constantinople (Istanbul) to consider revising the calendar. Two different revision were suggested. The first was to adjust it to match the solar cycles of the Gregorian Calendar, and the second was to have it match the lunar cycles.
Of these two suggestions, all Orthodox churches rejected the lunar revisions, but several accepted the solar calendar. The churches which accepted the partial revision began to celebrate Christmas on December 25th of the Gregorian Calendar, and the ones who rejected it continued to celebrate the holiday on January 7th.
Those Orthodox who rejected the revision have since been called Old Calendarists. They rejected it because they believed it to be heretical.
You see, one of the heresies in Orthodox Christianity is a thing called Ecumenism. Ecumenism can be thought of as compromise in religious matters. Orthodox Christians believe they follow the correct religion, and they dislike compromising on religious issues.
The reasoning which drives their rejection is this:
Eastern Orthodoxy is the right religion. Other religions are in error. If Orthodox Christianity changes to be like other religions, then it is no longer the right religion. It will become like the others, i.e., wrong.
This reasoning is valid, and the churches which accepted the revisions adhere to it as well. But their notions of what constituted Orthodoxy were different from those of the revisionists.
Was the Julian calendar part of the religion?
Some said “Yes,” and some said “No”. The former rejected the revision, and the latter accepted it.
Why Is Eastern Orthodox Christmas in January? – Does the Difference Matter?
It does not matter if Christ’s birthday is celebrated on December 25th or on January 7th. Jesus cares about the way you are, and he does not care about when you celebrate his birthday.
The reason why the calendar needed to be revised is because a slight error in the Julian Calendar eventually caused certain important holidays to be recognized at the wrong dates. The issue stopping its adoption was the heresy of Ecumenism, for which the calendar debate is a proxy.
The “Christians stole Christmas form the pagans!” Argument
This post concerns Christmas and its proper date. A certain lie is often told about this topic, and I thought it would be good to address it here.
The lie is that Christmas was stolen from the Romans. The general form that it takes looks like this:
“The Roman Empire was pagan before it was Christian. The Roman pagans had holidays on December 25th. So Christians decided to place Christmas on that date in order to make converting the pagans easier.”
When people tell this lie, they like to purport one of the following two holidays as the one which Christians “ripped off”.
The first is Saturnalia. Saturnalia was a week-long harvest festival held from December 17th though December 23rd.
It’s a week long and doesn’t include December 25th. People who claim that the date of Christmas has its root in Saturnalia conveniently ignore both of these facts. It’s far more likely that the closeness of the two dates is a coincidence.
The Roman Empire held a few hundred festivals and religious dates in 336 (the year Christmas’ date was set), and it was inevitable that either this or one of their other fourteen December events would be near Christmas.
The other holidays people claim Christmas’ date was taken from is the Festival of Sol Invictus. This holiday was not set until roughly the same time as Christmas. It might have come either before or afterward, we do not have sufficient evidence to state which is the case.
And the fact that we don’t know if The Festival of Sol Invictus was set before Christmas means that we can’t know if Christmas’ date was inspired by it or not.
How Christmas Was Established
The Gospels do not tell us Jesus’ birth date, but accounts of the seasons of his birth help teachers approximate its occurrence during the winter.
Moreover, December 25th was the Roman Calendar’s date for the winter solstice, and many noteworthy early Christians found it fine to place its Christ’s birthday here.
Saint Augustine has this to say about the date:
“Hence it is that He was born on the day which is the shortest in our earthly reckoning and from which subsequent days begin to increase in length. He, therefore, who bent low and lifted us up chose the shortest day, yet the one whence light begins to increase.”
A trusted church leader who happened to be alive at roughly the same time when Christmas was set to December 25th is telling us that the date was chosen for a reason which is consistent with Christian theology.
A trusted authority is telling us that a thing happened for a reason that makes sense. So Christmas should be on December 25th.
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