Christmas on the Orthodox Calendar, and Appalachian “Old Christmas”

Note: Please join in commemorating Christmas on the Orthodox calendar, if you’re in the central Pennsylvania region Jan. 6-7, at Holy Protection Russian Orthodox Christian Mission Church, in the Lewisburg Club, 131 Market St., Lewisburg PA. Holy Supper followed by Compline and Litya will be at 5 p.m. Sunday Jan. 6, and Divine Liturgy for the Nativity of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ will be at 10 a.m. Monday Jan. 7. All are welcome! (Services are in English with some Slavonic.)
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     ”Old Christmas” or “Appalachian Christmas” is still celebrated in America in early January by a few religious communities such as some Amish and Mennonite congregations, and remembered in rural areas.
     It was in 1752 that the British Empire switched from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar, thus bringing with it the English colonies of North America, and subsequently the United States, into the “new calendar,” following much of the European world. Christmas was then celebrated earlier, as Dec. 25 shifted backward.
     However, much of the Orthodox Christian world in Eurasia and Africa and other continents remains on the Julian calendar today (and most Orthodox Christians worldwide), on which December 25 falls on Jan. 7 this year on the church year. In Byzantine reckoning still used on Mount Athos and traditional Orthodox Christians, by the way, that church year is 7527.The new year for the Orthodox Church calendar falls on Sept. 1.
    There are parallels here with the Jewish calendar, which has its new year in the fall, its own overlapping calendar, and its own system of calculating years from creation (the Orthodox Christian year system however is based on the Greek Septuagint Bible).
     The deeper parallel lies in a sacred sense of time on the old calendar, along with either cognitive dissonance or welcome distance from the secular calendar, depending on your point of view.
     The commercialism and hectic rush of “new Christmas” dies down and allows for the ending of the Nativity Fast practiced by Orthodox Christians to sink in, along with some quiet and distinctions for children about the meaning of the day, echoing the message of the famous American Charlie Brown Christmas Special.
     Waiting for presents, and having to navigate earlier holiday non-fasting banquets and other family and friends celebrating Christmas early, are among the challenges.
     But the rewards come in the warmth, light, iconography, and smells of worship and food that come forth on Old Christmas to greet the birth of Christ in a cave. Traditional Orthodox iconography depicts His manger as a coffin, reminding us in simultaneous moment of sacred time of both the joy of the Incarnation and the sorrow of the Crucifixion, with the Resurrection joy following that. As St. Athanasius put it in the fourth century, “God became man so that man might become a god,” one in grace but not in essence with God. There too on the icon of course is the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, whose womb is described in Orthodoxy hymnody as wider than the heavens, because it contained the Creator God, Christ, fully God and because of her likewise fully man.
     Most Orthodox Christians worldwide celebrate on Jan. 7, which due to calendar creep now differs from the Jan. 6 Old Christmas of some Anabaptist communities. In the United States, many Orthodox Christian parishes are on the new calendar,because of controversial decisions in Constantinople (as they still call Istanbul) in the 1920s, following the Russian Revolution, when the communists changed the civil calendar from the Julian to Gregorian model, with the latter thus becoming identified in Slavic Orthodox cultures with brutal secularization. For them, Theophany (Epiphany in the West) falls on Jan. 6 currently, which is Dec. 24 or Nativity Eve on the Orthodox Julian calendar.
     Still, even in North America many of us celebrate on Jan. 7, and many others will remember it as Old Christmas, in churches large and small. Our small mission in central Pennsylvania gathers the night of Jan. 6 for a holy supper in the tradition of the coal region, a prayer service, and then again for the Divine Liturgy of the Nativity on Monday morning.
     The Gregorian calendar was instituted by the Catholic Church and much of the West in an effort to account better for astronomical slippage of the seasons due to the universe not following human calculations exactly.
     However, for those still on the Julian clock for Christmas, there arguably is a reflection of the overlapping sacred sense of time that the Church Fathers described in four dimensions: Human, now “cell phone” time; natural, related to the seasons and stars; eternal, as in the angels, demons, and human soul; and everlasting, the beyond-time of the divine.
     They all come together at the Nativity under the star followed by the Magi and the watchful eyes of the shepherds.
     We’re in the calendar but not of it, so to speak.
     Blessed Nativity, Merry Christmas, and pass the pierogis.
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