No Confusion Over Dates
- 2006.01.06 Russia Profile:
January 6, 2006
No Confusion Over Dates
Comment by Andrei Zolotov Jr
Russian Orthodox Christmas Will Stay Put
It's Christmas time again. This time around, it is Russian Orthodox
Christmas, which is January 7th.
To be more precise, it is the Nativity of Christ on Dec. 25th according to
the Julian calendar, to which abide the Orthodox Patriarchates of
Jerusalem, Moscow, Georgia and Serbia, monasteries on Mount Athos, in
Greece, as well as those Orthodox Christians, who have broken away from
their Churches over the calendar issue - the so-called "Old Calendarists."
This occurred after the controversial Ecumenical Patriarch Meletius IV
Metaxakis led in 1923 the switch of Greek, Romanian and Bulgarian Orthodox
Churches to the so-called "neo-Julian" calendar, which marks the immovable
holidays such as Christmas on the same days with Western Christians, while
leaving the old Easter cycle intact (except for in Finland, where Easter is
also celebrated by the Orthodox Church according to the Western calendar.)
It is the time of the year when the "calendar issue" inevitably comes to
mind, generating an annual string of articles in the Russian media. Some
secular commentators use the occasion to criticize the Russian Orthodox
Church for its "backwardness" and lament how terrible it is that, due to a
stubborn Orthodox hierarchy, Russia celebrates Christmas "apart from the
rest of the world." They like to take pity on Russian Orthodox Christians
who have to be torn between the fasting days preceding the feast of the
Nativity and the New Year's holiday, which is so much beloved for Russians.
And, they say, it would have been much easier for the Church to carry out
its mission in the society if its calendar was not at odds with the one
followed by the people.
This year, the pro-Kremlin patriotic youth movement Nashi, together with a
prominent Orthodox missionary, Deacon Andrei Kurayev, even planned to hold
a rally on Dec. 24th outside Moscow's Roman Catholic Cathedral of the
Immaculate Conception, "in defense of the Russian Christmas." But, thank
God, the plan was cancelled.
As a member of the Russian Orthodox Church and a journalist who has covered
its activities for a number of years, I'd like to venture to use this space
for several highly personal comments on the subject.
Let's face it: The calendar issue is real. It underscores the otherness of
the Russian Orthodox civilization vis-a-vis Western civilization. But, to a
much greater degree, in today's world, it underscores the otherness of
Christian civilization vis-a-vis the secular world, in Russia and elsewhere.
Calendar differences do not preclude the heads of the Russian Orthodox,
Roman Catholic, Anglican and some Protestant Churches from exchanging
Christmas messages. The same is true of simple Russians - both those who
are religious and those who are not - who routinely greet their friends of
Western tradition on Dec. 25 and many of whom celebrate Western Christmas
themselves. For Orthodox Christians who abide by different calendars, this
difference is not an obstacle to the full communion and, even within the
Moscow Patriarchate, there are some parishes abroad which abide by the new
For the Greek, Romanian and Bulgarian Orthodox Churches it is a serious
issue with regard to the internal schisms caused by many other issues than
questions of the calendar. It follows a pattern where, while in the
Christian West schisms largely occurred when people wanted change and were
resisted by the Church hierarchy, in the Christian East, schisms largely
occurred when the hierarchy imposed radical changes on the unwilling people.
Basically, while signifying the tension between modernists and
traditionalists within Orthodoxy, in a larger sense, the calendar is not an
issue of relations between different Christian confessions. They have quite
a few issues between them, but calendar is not one of them.
Within the Russian Orthodox Church, the calendar issue simply doesn't
exist. There is no force within the church calling for changes to the
calendar, and if some crazy bishop had introduced such a change it would
have definitely have caused a schism. After all, Patriarch Tikhon did try
to introduce the new calendar briefly in 1924, but the people simply did
not follow and he reversed the decision within a couple of months. Today's
Russian Orthodox Church has plenty of problems, but the calendar is not one
By changing the calendar and transferring many Christmas traditions to New
Year's, which became the main winter holiday in Russia, the Bolsheviks
thought they had dealt yet another blow to the Russian Orthodox Church. But
it turns out, at least here, that they gave it a rare present. They de
facto liberated Orthodox Christmas from all the accumulated secular and
consumerist fuss and turned it into a purely religious holiday celebrating
the birth of Jesus Christ - and nothing else. Even over the past 15 years,
with Russian Christmas again a public holiday, the non-church aspects of
its celebration have been weak and completely overshadowed by the New
Year's bonanza. The decorated trees in Russia are still thought of much
more as "New Year's Trees" than "Christmas Trees." And, for most of the
population, New Year's is the main family holiday, which they prefer to
spend at home, while traveling for the rest of the recently introduced
10-day public holidays.
Is the Church losing out in this? I don't think so. At least, nobody here
needs to call for "putting the Christ back in Christmas."
Is there a tension between New Year's and Christmas Fast for Russian
Orthodox believers? Yes, but not an irreconcilable one and, in many
respects, even providential. After the change in the civic calendar, the
strict fasting begins on Jan. 2, thus permitting the Orthodox Christians to
celebrate New Year's with wine and fish on their tables after a special
prayer service celebrated in all churches for New Year's Eve. And Jan. 1 is
the day of St. Vonifatios, to whom many pray as an intercessor in cases of
alcoholism. What a fitting saint for a day when most of the Russian
population has a hangover!
This year, Jan. 1 fell on a Sunday and, in my parish, many took communion
in the morning - meaning that they had seriously fasted before. And I know
a priest - actually, with quite liberal credentials - who every year
celebrates the Divine Liturgy in the morning on Jan. 1st, thus protesting
against the debauchery of that night in Moscow's restaurants and clubs.
"Somebody has to pray on this day in this city," he says.
"The surrounding world more and more often calls us to worship the idols of
glory, power, wealth and pleasure," Patriarch Alexy II wrote in the
Christmas message which will be read out in all of Moscow Patriarchate's
26,600 parishes on Christmas night. "But the Church knows: This is the road
Of course, for most Russians, Jan. 7 will be just another occasion to
celebrate, and will be followed by thoroughly unofficial Old New Year's Eve
on Jan. 13, as the last such excuse this January. But, for many in this
country, it is the day when Russians celebrate their otherworldliness. And
in that sense, they will not be much different from those Christians who
struggle with this dilemma on Dec. 25th.
Andrei Zolotov Jr. is the editor of Russia Profile
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