Orthodox Christmas 7 January
The reason why Russians celebrate Christmas on 7 January lies in history.
- 20 January 1918 the newly formed Bolsheviks’ government signed a decree separating the Russian Church from the state. In Tsar’s Russia prior to that the Church officially was a part of the governing system.
- 26 January 1918 Bolsheviks signed another decree, to align the calendar in Russia with the majority of other European countries. Most countries in Europe and the USA were using Gregorian calendar (circa 1582), while Russia was still using the old Julian calendar (circa 46 BC). To achieve that, after 31 January 1918 the next day was scheduled to be 14 February 1918, i.e. Russia jumped 13 days ahead overnight.
- Unsurprisingly, Russian Christian Church refused to recognize “Bolshevik’s calendar” and kept its old dates for religious holidays. As such, all dates of significance in the Russian Christian Orthodox Church are 13 days behind the actual calendar used by most other confessions and all governments. And after the year 2100, it will be 14 days.
Difference between Julian and Gregorian calendars
Julian calendar was introduced by Julius Caesar in 46 BC. According to the calendar proposed by Caesar, every 4 years there is a leap year with 29 days in February.
However, this calendar is not astronomically correct. Thus, the day of Easter, which initially was on the day of spring equinox 21 March, kept moving away from the astronomical date.
This is why in 16 century Pope Gregory XIII implemented a new calendar, which provided a more astronomically correct record of years, months and days. It is now called Gregorian calendar and used by all states and countries in daily life.
- Leap years in Gregorian calendar are only 97 times in 400 years, as opposed to 100 times in 400 years in Julian calendar.
- Years that can be divided by 100 are not leap years in Gregorian calendar, unless the number is also divisible by 400.
- This is why the year 2000 was a leap year, but 2100 won’t be.
This system keeps the calendar used by governments in line with the true astronomical times. Although it’s not 100% correct either (by 26 seconds). Thus, by the year 4909 there will be a whole one day (24 hours) accumulated of extra time. But it won’t concern any of us, of course.
Christmas in Russia and western countries: Are there any differences?
Christianity is the most popular religion in the world (2.3 billion people). Obviously, all of them celebrate the same event of the birth of Jesus.
- About 50% of the world’s Christians are Catholics (1.2 billion).
- Orthodox Christians are the second largest denomination. Their number is estimated at 225-300 million.
So, what differs and what is the same among different confessions?
1. Date of the holiday
25 December vs. 7 January, the reasons for which are explained above.
2. Importance of the holiday
Christmas is the most important date in western countries, while in Russian Orthodox tradition it is Easter that is the most significant. Russians celebrate the New Year’s Eve in a similar grand fashion like westerners prepare for Christmas. Even the decorated fir tree is called “The New Year’s Tree” in Russia.
3. Christmas service
Russian church offers revelers a night-long service until dawn. There are TV broadcasts of the service from the main cathedral in Moscow. Catholics offer 3 separate services: morning, day, and night.
4. Festive food
Stuffed turkey (or goose) and glazed leg of ham are traditional dishes on the festive table in western countries. Eggnog and Christmas cake, fruit mince pies are also popular. Contrary to that, Russian feast includes predominantly vegetarian options. The prolific Christmas dish is a simple sweet porridge with raisins and poppy seeds, usually made of wheat, and a sweetened drink made from boiled dried fruit.
Russians give presents to each other for the New Year, this is also the date for a rich festive table, as opposed to the modest Christmas feast.
6. Family celebration
Just as westerners, Christmas is a family holiday in Russia. But family members are unlikely to travel far and wide for this date. It’s more likely that out of town visitors will arrive for the New Year’s Eve.
7. Public holiday
In 1929 Soviet government officially prohibited citizens to celebrate Christmas. The first time 7 January was made a public holiday in post-USSR was in 1991.
- Belarus offers citizens 2 public holidays, 25 December and 7 January.
- From 2018 the same will happen in Ukraine, after the government adopted an official law in November 2017, according to which 25 December also becomes a public holiday, along with 7 January, so both Catholics and Orthodox Christians can celebrate the special day.
- In Russia 25 December 2018 will be a regular working day.
8. Christmas decorations
The custom of decorating homes and stores for holidays is typical for western countries and Russia. But in Russia it’s all about Russian “Santa” (Ded Moroz or “Grandfather Frost”) along with his granddaughter Snegurochka (“Snow Girl”) and the New Year. The decorations are left, however, all the way until 14 January, which is “The Old New Year” in Russia. That’s another “old style” holiday, which Russians got accustomed to celebrate after 1918, when they “lost” 13 days. The Old New Year arrives at midnight from 13 to 14 January. Only after that decorations are dismantled.
9. Christmas Carols
The custom of singing Christmas carols is popular in Ukraine, where young girls dress up in national clothes for the day and visit neighbors—the style of fun is similar to American Halloween. In western countries citizens don’t visit each other singing songs but rather gather in large groups during the weeks before the holiday to listen to songs or join the chorus.
Video: 20 Ukrainian groups sing “Schedrik” (Ukrainian Carol of Bells)
During a festival in Vinnytsia on 13 December 2017, hundreds of singers from choirs around the country sang the famous Ukrainian Christmas song “Schedrik”. What a beautiful song!
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