It’s confusing. Especially around Christmastime, when I tell people that in our church we celebrate Christmas (which we call the Feast of the Nativity) on January 7.
“Oh, that’s because of the 12 days of Christmas, right?”
“So you celebrate Christmas Eve on Epiphany?”
To add to the confustion, some people have heard of something called “Old Christmas,” which is celebrated on January 6.
Closely related is the question of why we celebrate saints’ days on different days from Western liturgical churches. For instance, we celebrate St. Nicholas Day on December 19th instead of December 6.
When people asked me about this, I would usually mumble something about the “old calendar,” but I never really understood it myself.
Enter Father Joseph Honeycutt and his podcast, “Orthodixie.” (No, I did not misspell that word. Father Joseph’s program is called OrthoDIXIE” because he lives in the South.) I love his off-beat humor, and his programs are often thought provoking. In this podcast called “Meletius Metaxakis Makes A Maalox Moment,” Father Joseph finally helped me understand what “Old Calendar” means.
Until the time of Julius Caesar, the calendar year was organized around the phases of the moon, which didn’t work very well. So Julius Caesar, with the advice of his astronomers, instituted a new calendar based on the sun. The problem was that they overestimated the length of the year by 11 minutes and 15 seconds, which comes to one day every 128 years. So by the 16th century, the calendar was 10 days off.
In 1582 Pope Gregory XIII corrected the calendar by taking off the extra 11 minutes and 15 seconds from the year and adjusting the dates. His new calendar is often referred to as the Gregorian Calendar.
Protestant England did not want to follow a calendar instituted by the Pope, so they continued with the old calendar. By the middle of the 18th century, England was 11 days ahead of the continent. Then in 1751, England passed a calendar act, which brought England into line with the Gregorian Calendar. So September 14 followed September 2 that year. Many people didn’t understand and complained that the government had stolen 11 days of their lives. There were riots with shouts of “Give us back our 11 days!”
Before the calendar act, England celebrated Christmas on January 6 (by the Gregorian calendar). After the reform, January 6 became known as “Old Christmas.” Some Americans of British descent also referred to January 6 as “Old Christmas,” and some customs surrounding “Old Christmas” still exist in Appalachian communities.
The Orthodox countries were also slow to adopt the Gregorian calendar. Russia used the Julian Calendar until 1917, and Greece used the Julian calendar until 1923. Many Orthodox churches still use the Julian calendar to mark their liturgical year. Our church is one of them. By now, the Julian calendar is 13 days off the Gregorian calendar. Hence we celebrate Christmas on January 7.
Personally, I like celebrating the Feast of the Nativity on a separate day from the day of gift giving and other festivities. The Nativity Feast is day focused on the Incarnation and worship.
Christ is born! Glorify Him!