Monday, January 07, 2008

Merry Russian Christmas - January 7: A New, Old Holiday

(Congratulations) on the Birth of Christ. (Photo credit: Russia-InfoCenter.)

Today is January 7, Christmas Day in Russia and the holiday provides a fascinating glimpse into a rich treasure-trove of culture. Back during the days of the czars, back before the Soviet era, Christmas was the holiday in Russia. The card above would be from that era. Christmas was abandoned during the Communist era that followed and folks celebrated it at their peril. Eventually New Year's came to be accepted to fill the gap. Only in recent years, during Mr. Putin’s presidency in fact, has Christmas returned to the holiday mix and now it’s an official, red day on the calendar.

Another interesting twist to the holiday is that Russian Orthodox Christmas is January 7. How can that be? you might ask. The story is fascinating and here’s the short version: The Russian Orthodox Church still uses the calendar established long ago by our mutual friend, Julius Caesar. That’s the Julian calendar, no surprise there, and here it’s called the old style calendar.

Over the decades, over the centuries, it became obvious to the clever folks who study the sun, stars and various heavenly bodies, that the Julian calendar year needed a bit of tweaking. And so it was that in 1582, another Roman fellow, Pope Gregory XIII, introduced a revised calendar which got the solar and calendar years nicely into sync. Interestingly, the Gregorian calendar, or new style calendar, shaved off a mere 12¾ minutes a year from the Julian calendar. But over the decades, over the centuries, those minutes have added up until nowadays there is a difference of 13 days between the two calendars.

Russia, the enigma that she is, uses both calendars. Oy! Fortunately, the confusion is minimal because in general, the new style calendar is used. But, as noted in Windows to Russia, take one step into a Russian Orthodox Church, and voila, you’re back on the old style calendar. And, in this neck of the woods where orthodoxy reigns supreme – more or less – the old style calendar is used for certain holidays.

Here's how this calendar waltz affects daily life in Russia. Along comes December 25 and it’s just another work day, celebrated – it’s safe to say – by only a few thousand ex-patriots such as myself and the kind folks who happily oblige our need to celebrate. Of course, our western Christmas or Catholic Christmas makes that evening's news in a big way simply because many find the west fascinating. A week later, comes the New Year's festivities, the year's biggest party, celebrated January 1. Then, almost two weeks later come the next wave of holidays: Russian Orthodox Christmas is celebrated January 7th because, according to the old style calendar, it's really December 25th. A week later on January 14 comes the Orthodox New Year's Day, cleverly referred to as the Old-New Year.

But hey, Welcome to Russia! Where celebration is a way of life.

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