Why Orthodox and Catholic Christmases are celebrated on different dates

25 December 2022, 04:26 PM
In the refectory church of Mykhailivskyi Zolotoverkhi Monastery (in the background) this year, a service will also be held on December 25 (Photo:REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko)

In the refectory church of Mykhailivskyi Zolotoverkhi Monastery (in the background) this year, a service will also be held on December 25 (Photo:REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko)

This year, the Orthodox Church of Ukraine has allowed its believers to celebrate Christmas on Dec. 25, together with most of the Western world.

NV explains why Christmas is celebrated on Dec. 25 in many countries, and whether Ukraine can finally switch to this date as well.

Where and why Christmas is celebrated on Dec. 25

The birthday of Christian religious figure Jesus Christ is a tentative date, since neither historians nor religious scholars have reliable information on the matter. There is no indication of the figure’s birthday in the Christian holy book, the Bible.

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The first calculations that would point to Dec. 25 as the date of Christ’s birth are documented in historical sources from the IV century. AD, i.e. the times of the Roman Empire. The final decision to celebrate Christmas on Dec. 25 was made in 431 at the Ephesus (Third Universal) Church Council.

To this day, on this date, Dec. 25, Christmas is celebrated by most Christian denominations of the world: in particular, the Catholics and Orthodox tendencies – the only difference is in which calendar the churches keep track of time.

“When they say that the Orthodox celebrate Christmas on Jan. 7, this is a very common misconception, because in fact the Orthodox celebrate on Dec. 25,” Vyacheslav Horshkov, an employee of the State Service of Ukraine for Ethnopolitics and Freedom of Conscience, previously told German newspaper DW.

A number of Orthodox churches, including the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC), and some Protestants use the Julian calendar — it was introduced by Julius Caesar and has been used in Christianity since the days of the Roman Empire. However, the calendar turned out to be astronomically inaccurate. Due to incorrect calculations of the length of the year, over time, Christmas began to move closer to the actual day of the vernal equinox. Currently, this “lag” has reached 13 days (this is the difference between Dec. 25 and Jan. 7) and will only grow over the years: in this version, in 2101, Christmas will already fall on January 8.

The inaccuracy was noticed a long time ago, so in the 16th century the Catholic Pope Gregory XIII implemented a calendar reform. The new calendar introduced by him – what we now call the Gregorian calendar – eliminated the lag behind the Julian calendar, which at that time reached 10 days. Since then, according to this calendar, Christmas has been celebrated by the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches on Dec. 25. Similarly, Christmas is also celebrated on Dec. 25 by the majority of local Orthodox churches of the world – because they celebrate according to the New Julian calendar (the churches of Constantinople, Cyprus, Hellas, Romanian, Alexandria, Antioch, Albania, and Bulgaria). The New Julian calendar is a modified and more modern version of the astronomically outdated Julian time calculation, which was proposed in 1923 by the Serbian astronomer Milutin Milanković. By 2800, this calendar will completely coincide with the Gregorian calendar.

That is why Christmas is celebrated on Dec. 25 in most countries of the world: South and North America, most countries of Europe and Africa, Australia and India, etc. However, part of the Eastern Orthodox churches celebrate Christmas on Jan. 7: the Greek Orthodox Church of Jerusalem, the Moscow Patriarchate, the Georgian Apostolic Autocephalous Orthodox Church, the Serbian Orthodox Church, the Polish Autocephalous Orthodox Church, and the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU). Also, on Jan. 7, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC) celebrates Christmas. In addition, according to other calendars or their own religious characteristics, Christmas is celebrated on Jan. 7 in some African countries, and on Jan. 6 in Armenia.

In total, nine autocephalous Orthodox churches follow the New Julian calendar (celebrating Christmas on Dec. 25), and the other six (including the OCU) follow the Julian calendar, celebrating Christmas on Jan. 7.

How war and time the OCU’s decision to celebrate Christmas on Dec. 25

Since the autocephalous status of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine was restored at the beginning of 2019, its head, Metropolitan Epiphanius, has had to comment every year on the debate about whether Ukraine should fully switch to celebrating Christmas on Dec. 25.

Thus, in December 2020, Epiphanius noted that the decision can be made only when “the church matures, when the believers mature.”

“In general, I’m not against it, but I resist the opinion of our faithful,” he explained in an interview with Radio Liberty two years ago.

"And we clearly know sociology, which proves that more than 60% of Ukrainians are against celebrating Dec. 25. And we, as a church, rely on our faithful, because we are only establishing ourselves as a recognized local OCU.”

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In December 2021, Epiphanius suggested that Ukraine could switch to celebrating Christmas on Dec. 25 within 10 years, if there are suitable conditions for this.

However, the full-scale invasion of Russia made adjustments to this agenda, and in October 2022, the OCU allowed its believers to celebrate Christmas this year in the “Western” style. At one of the meetings, the Holy Synod of the OCU adopted a special decision (No. 19) on the possibility of holding a divine service in honor of the Nativity of Christ according to the New Julian calendar, i.e. Dec. 25, 2022.

The Synod reached such a decision for several reasons:

  • It had received “numerous requests” to do so;
  • It took into account the debate that has been going on for many years in the Church and in society;
  • and it anticipated the aggravation of calendar disputes in the public space — in particular, due to the circumstances of the war;

Therefore, the OCU decided to allow Christmas services to be held on Dec. 25, 2022, on the occasion of the Nativity of Christ where “there are pastoral circumstances for this and the desire of the faithful (OCU believers) is witnessed.”

After that, the church will ask the clergy to submit written data on the number of participants in such a service to the Kyiv Metropolitanate through the diocesan administrations, in order to consider whether to make such a calendar transition final.

“In the case of performing such a service (on Dec. 25), its participants are released from the restrictions of fasting on this day,” the OCU added.

Currently, there is an announcement about the December Christmas service (all-day vigil on December 24 and festive Divine Liturgy on Dec. 25, 2022) in the Mykhailivskyy Zolotoverkhyy Monastery of the OCU in Kyiv. These services will be held not in the main church, but in the refectory church of Ivan the Theologian.

The head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, Svyatoslav (Shevchuk), previously noted that calendar reform is “always a test of strength.”

In the summer of 2021, he commented in detail on the idea of switching to the celebration of Christmas only on Dec. 25 and said that outside Ukraine, the UGCC in many dioceses and parishes has been living according to the Gregorian calendar for a long time.

As Shevchuk remarked even before the full-scale invasion, if the time for such a reform came, the UGCC would only switch to a new calendar together with the OCU — celebrating Christmas and Easter at the same time as most of the world.

This year, the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church in Ukraine will celebrate Christmas as before – on Jan. 7.

How many Ukrainians currently celebrate Christmas in December

At the end of November 2022, the Rating sociological research group conducted a survey on the Ukrainians’ attitude to the idea of moving the date of Christmas.

Over the past year, the number of those who celebrate Christmas only on Dec. 25 (from 4% to 11%) and those who celebrate it on both dates (from 18% to 25%) has increased.

In 2022, the majority of Ukrainians (55%) will celebrate Christmas on Jan. 7, although this is much less than last year (71% in 2021). 8% do not celebrate Christmas at all (most among young people, residents of the south and the capital). Residents of the west, Kyiv, younger respondents and Greek Catholics spoke more often about the double celebration of Christmas (as well as about celebrating only on Dec. 25).

This year, during Russia’s full-scale invasion, those who support the idea of moving the celebration of Christmas to Dec. 25 also increased significantly: from 26% to 44%. On the contrary, fewer respondents now speak against such an idea — 31% (in 2021 it was 58%). Another 23% indicated that they do not care about this question and 2% could not answer.

Those who support this idea the most are among the residents of western Ukraine and Kyiv, where more than half of the residents support this idea. Among the residents of central Ukraine, a relative majority (44%) is also not against this initiative.

In addition, there is significant support for the idea of moving Christmas celebrations among Greek Catholics. Almost half (46%) of OCU parishioners are also in agreement on this, while a third of them are against such an idea.

On the other hand, among the inhabitants of southern and eastern Ukraine, a relative majority does not support the idea of moving the date of Christmas celebration. In terms of age, the most variations are observed in the older and middle age groups, where the relative majority (more than 40%) support the idea of moving the date, while a significant number (at least a third) are against it. Among young people, a third are in favor of the transfer, a third are against it, and the same number said that they don’t care.

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