The Dates of Christmas and New Year

Quite a few of us explain to our non-Orthodox friends that we celebrate Christmas on 7th January. In fact, we don't! We celebrate Christmas on 25th December – it's just that the secular world (newspapers, schools, banks etc.) call this day 7th January.

This confusion occurs because the western secular world uses the Gregorian calendar and the traditional Orthodox Church uses the Julian calendar. The Gregorian calendar was introduced by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582 and is now thirteen days ahead of the Julian calendar.

England only moved on to the Gregorian calendar in 1752, Parliament having decided that Wednesday 2nd September 1752 would be followed by Thursday 14th September 1752. The change of the calendar actually became an issue in the 1754 General Election with Tory opposition politicians demanding a return to the traditional Julian calendar, but the Whig government defending the decision to change to the new, Gregorian calendar. This dispute is referenced in the William Hogarth painting ‘An Election Entertainment’ which depicts a party held by the Whigs. The man sitting on the floor at the front of the painting rests his foot on a captured Tory placard which reads: ‘Give us our Eleven Days’!

The Orthodox Church has never universally accepted the Gregorian calendar although some Churches, for mainly political reasons, changed to it in the 1920s. One of the reasons that we keep the Julian calendar is that the date of Pascha is calculated using it. Switching Christmas to the Gregorian Calendar, but keeping Pascha according to the Julian Calendar disrupts the cycle of fasts and feasts; it leads, in some years, to the Apostles’ Fast being so short it no longer exists at all!

To sum up, we can tell people that we celebrate Christmas on 25th December; it just happens to be the 7th January  for them!

It is common to hear people say that Christians are wrong to celebrate Christmas on 25th December because Christ was not born in December. This misunderstanding of the Church’s teaching probably occurs because non-Orthodox churches tend to teach children that Christmas is ‘Christ’s birthday’ – it isn’t. We celebrate the Nativity of Christ on 25th December because this is the date that the Church has chosen, not because it is the exact day that Christ was born.

On the other hand, nearly everyone accepts that the New Year begins on the 1st January. It doesn’t! The Church New Year is celebrated on 1st  September and there is no Orthodox service appointed for the January New Year at all. In Russia, for some curious reason, New Year is celebrated on 14th January (1st January on the Julian Calendar).

Although the Scots would disagree, both these New Year celebrations are of little cultural significance. However, perhaps we can learn from the tradition of making resolutions at New Year. Many non-Orthodox people are keen to change their lives for the better at New Year; we should try and change our lives by repentance throughout the year by recalling the Gospel Parable:

The ground of a certain rich man brought forth plentifully: And he thought within himself, saying, What shall I do, because I have no room where to bestow my fruits? And he said, This will I do: I will pull down my barns, and build greater; and there will I bestow all my fruits and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years; take thine ease, eat, drink, and be merry. But God said unto him, Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee: then whose shall those things be, which thou hast provided? So is he that layeth up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God (Luke 12:16-21)


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