My Christmas cactus decided to bloom late this year. Perhaps I neglected it, or didn’t speak sweet nothings into its ear, or played music not to its liking. I don’t know the secret wisdom of plants, not being a plant whisperer, you know. But my cactus woke up about the time I brought a small poinsettia to visit it. I guess it was destined this year to be an Orthodox Christmas cactus.
Although the twelve days of Christmas end on January 6, the Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas on January 7th. Are they out of step with everyone else, double dipping into Santa’s bag, or what else is going on?
Orthodox Christmas Day
Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas Day on or near January 7 because they still use the Julian Calendar, which was the lunar calendar devised during Julius Caesar’s time in Rome. The Gregorian, or modern calendar, is our modern civic calendar and is used around the world. It’s a solar calendar based on a 365 day year, which has twelve months of irregular lengths. Pope Gregory XIII gets credit for the calendar, but it’s an adaptation of a calendar designed by Luigi Lilio (also known as Aloysius Lilius), who was an Italian doctor, astronomer, and philosopher. He was born around 1510 and died in 1576, six years before his calendar was officially introduced.
Catholic countries adopted the new calendar in 1582, but Protestant countries were skeptical at best, taking nearly 200 years to make the change. England and the colonies switched over when an act of Parliament introduced the new calendar, advancing the date from September 2 to September 14, 1752. The Calendar (New Style) Act 1750 introduced the Gregorian calendar to the British Empire, bringing Britain into line with most of Western Europe.
Its introduction wasn’t straightforward. The year 1751 was a short year, lasting just 282 days from 25th March, which was the New Year in the Julian calendar, to 31st December. The year 1752 then began on 1 January.
To align the calendar used in England with Europe’s calendar, needed a correction of 11 days: the ‘lost days’—Wednesday, September 2, 1752, would be followed by Thursday, September14, 1752. An early urban legend was born: the Calendar Riots. These claims of civil unrest and rioters might have been inferred from a Hogarth painting “An Election Entertainment,” in which a political banner has the text, “Give us our eleven days.”
Benjamin Franklin famously wrote about the switch in his almanac: “…And what an indulgence is here, for those who love their pillow to lie down in Peace on the second of this month and not perhaps awake till the morning of the fourteenth.” (Quoted by Cowan, 29; Irwin, 98)
Old Ben favored the adage “early to bed, early to rise, makes one healthy, wealthy, and wise.”
My daddy taught me an old poem about the months of the year. It went something like this. I found 93 other variations on the theme (see link below).
Thirty days hath September,
April, June and dull November
All the rest have 31
Excepting February 1 in 4
February then has one day more.
Dad also counted out the months on his knuckles: the heights going in one direction were January, March, May, July, and the valleys in between were February, April, and May. Coming back again, he’d count the high knuckle as August, the valley as September, a knuckle for October, a valley for November, and end with a knuckle for a December.
Fathers teach us important information, such as how to calculate moveable feasts by the equinoxes, which depend on the sun position in the sky, and the moon’s phases. I never knew what sort of arcane knowledge would come from his mind, but he enjoyed sharing this special esoteric information.
Not everyone was sold on the old Julian calendar. In Germany, around the year 1145 CE, the tribes kept the old astrological calendar. Annus, the year, is portrayed as a hairy, bearded man in a skimpy mantle, sitting in the center of the page. He holds the moon in his right hand and the sun in his left, while day hovers just below the sun; and night, below the moon. The seasons are in the corners, dressed properly for the time.
The Leap Year is an important addition to the Gregorian Calendar, since every four years February is 29 days long and the year is 366 days long.
Julian Calendar Christmas is December 25
Orthodox Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus on the same day as all other Christians, but our calendars are different. Therefore, Orthodox Christians’ observance of Christmas Day on or near the Gregorian calendar day of January 7 is not a nationwide public holiday in the United States.
For many Orthodox Christians, Christmas Day is not about presents, eggnog or Christmas characters that have become popular through commercialization. Christmas Day is a time to heal the soul. It is also a time of peace and unity. Many Orthodox Christians attend a special church liturgy on Christmas Day on January 7. Orthodox churches celebrate Christmas Day with various traditions. For example, many churches light a small fire of blessed palms and burn frankincense to commemorate the three wise men’s (also known as Magi) gifts to baby Jesus.
Orthodox Christmas on December 25 in the Julian calendar will be celebrated on January 7, because this date is only valid between 1901 and 2100. The Gregorian date for Orthodox Christmas will be January 8 in 2101 if the Julian calendar is still used. On that day, the Julian calendar will be 14 days longer than the Gregorian calendar.
White cloth is used on dinner tables in some countries to symbolize purity and the cloth that baby Jesus was wrapped in. Straw may be placed on these tables to symbolize the simplicity of the place where Jesus was born. Candles may be lit to represent the light of Christ and the festive Christmas meal represents the end of fasting.
Orthodox Christmas Day Observances
94 Poems of Calendar Months and Days
Equinox and Solstice
No Room Inn, found object icon: Cornelia DeLee, now in private collection.
Labors of the Month illustration
British Calendar Riots