While many people celebrated Christmas this past December, another group is preparing to do so in January. Orthodox Christmas was on January 7, 2024, and served as Christmas for members of the Eastern Orthodox Church. However, despite the name, Orthodox Christmas is not dissimilar to the more popular version of the holiday.
To learn more, The Medium spoke to Dr. Kyle Smith from the Department of Historical Studies. Dr. Smith has studied and spoken about Christianity in various forms, such as a podcast titled Biblical Time Machine, a book written by him, titled Cult of The Dead: A Brief History Of Christmas, and a course he taught this past fall, RLG337H5: Christmas: A History, which discusses the holiday’s history and how it evolved into the holiday we’re familiar with today.
When asked about what Orthodox Christmas is, Dr. Smith states: “Both in terms of its theological importance as the celebration of Jesus’s birth and the basic ways in which festivities are held, Orthodox Christmas isn’t fundamentally different from Christmas in other parts of the world, though there are many specific cultural traditions among the Orthodox that may not include things like Christmas trees and Santa Claus. Although the date of Orthodox Christmas is January 7 on our civil (Gregorian) calendar, it’s actually December 25 on the Julian calendar that’s still used by most Orthodox Christians.”
Orthodox Christmas is celebrated in a fashion similar to the December holiday according to Dr. Smith, with midnight church services the evening before Christmas day. Additionally, the Orthodox have “Nativity Fasts,” which he describes as “more rigorous than the Advent fast of Roman Catholics or Protestant Christians,” since they have some meat-free meals. Dr. Smith cites the example of Ukrainian Orthodox Christians: “[They] usually have a meatless dinner of twelve dishes, symbolizing the twelve apostles. The most important dish is kutia, which is made from wheat, berries, poppy seeds, honey, and usually nuts and raisins. Other things on the traditional Ukrainian Christmas Eve menu include borscht (beet soup), pierogi (potato and sauerkraut dumplings), pickled herring, and cabbage rolls.”
He continues, “Meanwhile, Greek Orthodox Christians often serve a sweet bread called Christopsomo along with roast lamb or pork; the tradition among the Ethiopian Orthodox is doro wat, which is a spicy chicken stew; while Coptic Orthodox Christians in Egypt usually have fatta, which is a layered dish of rice, pita, and shredded lamb or beef all covered with a garlic-vinegar-tomato sauce.” Dr. Smith notes that this mirrors how all Christmas foods throughout the world vary in terms of their cultural significance. In this sense, communities celebrating Orthodox Christmas perform similar rituals to communities celebrating it in December. It is merely a difference in calendar uses that causes the difference in dates for many.
In terms of why Orthodox Christmas is celebrated in January instead of December, Dr. Smith points out that technically both versions are celebrated on the same date, but they follow different calendars that place December 25 at different times. “It’s just that the Julian calendar is currently thirteen days behind the Gregorian one, so December 25 [on Julian] falls on January 7 of the more widely used Gregorian calendar.”
Dr. Smith answers this question in greater depth in his most recent book. He explains how on the Ides of March in 44 BC, a year before Julius Caesar’s assassination, the Roman calendar was revised. This revision included extending the 12 yearly months (except February) to their current duration of 30 or 31 days. Dr. Smith states this is due to “Caesar’s Egyptian astronomers [who] had calculated the length of the solar year at 365 and a quarter day, they prescribed adding one day to February every fourth year to account for the extra quarter day in the earth’s annual trip around the sun. Though the Egyptian astronomers’ calculations were remarkably accurate, the length of one solar year is about 11 minutes shy of 365 and a quarter day. As a result, each leap day tacked an extra 44 minutes onto the calendar. At first, these minutes were scarcely noticeable. It took over a century for the calendar to be off by just a single day. But over many centuries even minutes can start to add up.”
Although Christian calendar makers realized this mistake by the early Middle Ages, they didn’t rectify it until the end of the sixteenth century when Gregory XIII was serving as Pope. According to Dr. Smith, “10 days too many had accrued on the calendar.” Gregory’s solution to the problem was to shorten the year 1582 by skipping 10 days in October. “In Catholic countries, this meant that October 15 immediately followed October 4 that year. From then on, the Pope decreed that the addition of leap days would have to change. February would still get one in every year divisible by four, except in years that were also divisible by 100—unless that year was also divisible by 400. This explains why 2000 was a leap year, while 2100 will not be.”
Dr. Smith also explains that most of the world adopted Pope Gregory’s changes, although it took many centuries for them to do so. “Catholic countries were the first, followed by Protestant ones, while many Orthodox Christians still refuse to accept the Pope’s calendar. Because the Julian calendar is now not 10 but 13 days behind the Gregorian one, Orthodox Christmas—again, still December 25 according to the Julian calendar—currently falls on January 7. If the Orthodox ‘Old Calendarists’ continue to use the Julian calendar through 2100, when the Gregorian calendar doesn’t add a leap day, Orthodox Christmas in 2101 will slide a further day, to January 8.”
Despite these different dates, Orthodox Christmas is recognized as a formal celebration by workplaces as a holiday. Dr. Smith cites the example of an Inclusive Employer Guide that provides a brief overview of Orthodox Christmas. It states that it, too, exists as a spiritual celebration to commemorate Christ’s birth with a feast.
Staff Writer (Volume 49 & 50) — Yusuf is in his fourth year completing a double major in English and Cinema Studies and a minor in History of Religions. He first joined The Medium in 2022 when he sought to get involved in the on-campus community. He has developed strong writing skills throughout the experience and enjoys learning about new topics he wouldn’t know about otherwise. You can connect with Yusuf on LinkedIn.