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Welcome to the David Victor Vector blog. This is blog that covers religious observances around the world international affairs and global business. This blog describes religious holidays for most major religions as well as raising issues dealing with globalization, international business ethics, cross-cultural business communication and political events affecting business in an integrated world economy. I look forward your discussion and commentary on these articles and subjects. Enjoy!

Sunday, January 6, 2019

Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox Christmas Customs


All Oriental Orthodox and most Eastern rite Christian traditions celebrate Christmas on January 7. Because Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox Christian traditions follow the follow the Julian Calendar rather than the Gregorian calendar used by Roman Catholic and most Protestant sects, Christmas seems to come "later" than the Christmas celebrated by other Christian traditions. Eastern rite Christmas, though, is not "later", but simply following a separate calendar. 

In other words, most (but not all) Eastern Orthodox, and Oriental Orthodox Churches celebrate Christmas on December 25 of the Julian calendar which corresponds to a date in the Gregorian calendar (used as the secular calendar as well) some time on or near January 7 (which is the date for January 2021). 

Some people using the Gregorian calendar confuse Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox Rite Christmas with Epiphany because Western traditions observe Epiphany on January 6 of the Gregorian calendar.  Orthodox traditions also observe Epiphany (often called Theophany among Eastern Orthodox Christians) on January 6 in the Julian calendar which corresponds to January 19 in the Gregorian or secular calendar.  For most Eastern Orthodox European traditions, the emphasis is primarily on the Theophany or “shining forth” of Jesus, as Jesus’ presence was made known. 

In several Eastern Orthodox traditions, Santa Claus visits children on New Year's Day. However, as most Orthodox churches follow the Julian calendar, this corresponds with January 14 in the Gregorian calendar. The giving of gifts in many Orthodox tradition is identified with Saint Basil the Great, who died on New Year’s Day, 379.  

Dating Christmas the Julian Calendar and Oriental Orthodox Calendars

The Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches shared the same calendar until 1582 when the Roman Catholic Pope Gregory XIII adopted a new calendar, now named for him and known as the Gregorian calendar. Until 1582, all Christians followed the calendar established by Julius Caesar, known as the Julian calendar. Gregory XIII was concerned with the relative loss of time in the Julian calendar. The Julian calendar has a leap year every four years by doubling February 24. Gregory XIII relied on the calculations of the observable equinoxes calculated by the astronomers Aloysius Lilies and Christopher Clavius. The Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches did not recognize the change and they have continued to maintain the Julian calendar.

A further division exists among Eastern Orthodoxy and Oriental Orthodoxy, the two having divided over the definition of Christ's nature at the Council of Chalcedon in 451.

Technically, too, adherents of Oriental Orthodox faiths follow their own calendars, but have for the sake of Orthodox unity agreed to calculate Christmas on the same date as their Eastern Orthodox counterparts. In other words, many of the Oriental Orthodox Churches do not follow the Julian calendar as they had their own calendar systems which predate the Julian system. However since the Oriental Orthodox Churches generally match the Julian calendar for the Feast of the Nativity, this is not particular important with regard to dating this particular holiday.

Finally, complicating this a bit more, some Eastern Orthodox Churches adopted a "revised" Julian calendar, aligning the two calendars (for the current century at least). The calendars still differ for Easter (or Pascha) but match for Christmas and non-moveable feasts. As a result, the so-called "new calendarists" also celebrate Christmas on the secular date of December 25. Thus the Roman Catholic and Protestant Christmas is the same date as Christmas for the Greek Orthodox (the largest of the new calendarist Orthodox churches), the Finnish and Estonian Orthodox (the first to adopt the new calendar, both in 1923), the Bulgarian Orthodox (the last to adopt the new calendar, in 1968) and the Orthodox Churches of Cyprus, Albania,  Constantinople, Romania and the Czech Lands & Slovakia,  and the Saint Thomas Christian Communities of India (the Malankara Orthodox Syrian, the Catholicos of the East, and the Malankara Metropolitan Churches). While these churches all remain autocephalous members of the Eastern Orthodox Communion, they are a minority among the various Eastern Orthodox churches.

Churches Predating the Adoption of the Julian Calendar

Most of the Oriental Orthodox Churches predate the establishment of formal Christianity under the Roman Emperor Constantine in the Roman Empire. The Christian churches in Egypt, Ethiopia and the Levant well predate Constantine's attempt to formulate an official agreement not only on doctrine but on using the Julian -- official Roman -- calendar for dating holidays at the First Council of Nicaea in 325.  As a result, the churches established in Ethiopia, Egypt, and Syria all had well-established religious calendars.  

Moreover, not all of the churches that predate the Council of Nicaea follow the Julian calendar. Three of these --  the Indian Thomas Churches, the Assyrian Church of the East and the Chaldean Catholic Church (both claiming to date back to the 1st Century AD) remain in communion with the Roman Catholic Church, and as a result follow the Gregorian dating system.

Who Celebrates the Feast of the Nativity -- Christmas -- Using the Julian Calendar?

The Oriental Orthodox and the Eastern Orthodox Christianity are not the same religion, even if both use the Julian Calendar's date for the birth of Jesus and both have the word "Orthodox" in their names. It is not the purpose of this overview to discuss the doctrinal and religious differences dividing these groups. Rather, the purpose here is to indicate which Christian Churches celebrate Christmas according to the Julian calendar (and thus making them appear to celebrate Christmas in January in the secular or Gregorian calendar).

In the following list, it is likely that I will have left out some of the churches. Some of these are due to size (as in those churches with under ½ million followers) and others due to controversy as with the 14 current autocephalous Eastern Orthodox Churches that have been excommunicated or otherwise unrecognized. Of these, I list only those four with over 1 million adherents (two each for Oriental and Eastern Orthodox schisms) Others may well be simply that (and I apologize in advance) I did not know enough to include these. In short, this is not a comprehensive list.

These, then, are the Christian churches that celebrate the Feast of the Nativity according to the Julian Calendar. These are divided into those in the Oriental Orthodox Communion and the Eastern Orthodox Communion, along with their estimated followers.

Oriental Orthodox Churches
  • Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church (50 million)
  • Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria (30 million)
  • Armenian Apostolic Church (9 million)
  • Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church of India (2.5 million)
  • Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo (3 million)
  • Syriac Orthodox/Jacobite Syrian Church of Antioch (½ million)
Eastern Orthodox Churches
  • Russian Orthodox Church (150 million)
  • Serbian Orthodox Church (12 million)
  • Ukrainian Orthodox Church (7 million)
  • Georgian Apostolic Autocephalous Orthodox Church (3.5 million)
Autocephalous Indian Orthodox Churches Without Full Communion 
  • Armenian Catholicosate of the Great House of Cilicia (4 million)
  • Jacobite Syrian Orthodox Church in India (1.2 million)
Autocephalous Eastern Orthodox Churches Without Full Communion 
  • Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (3 million)
  • Macedonian Orthodox Church  (2 million)
Note again that the several Eastern Orthodox Churches follow the "new calendrist" Julian custom of celebrating Christmas on the "new Julian" date that corresponds to the Gregorian date of December 25. These churches are Eastern Orthodox in all other respects and remain within the Eastern Orthodox Communion. Again, these Orthodox churches celebrating Christmas on the same day as the Gregorian Christmas are:

"New Calandrist" Eastern Orthodox Churches (celebrating Christmas on December 25)
  • Greek Orthodox Church (25 million)* 
  • Romanian Orthodox Church (16 million)
  • Bulgarian Orthodox Church (11 million)
  • Albanian Orthodox Church (½ million)
  • Finnish, Estonian Orthodox, Czech and Slovak (all under 100,000)
* technically speaking, the Greek Orthodox Church is composed of multiple divisions itself, including the so-called "four ancient Patriarchates" of Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, of Alexandria, of Antioch and of Jerusalem (itself with an autonomous subdivision of the Church of Mount Sinai), as well as three self-ruling Greek Orthodox churches of the Church of Greece, Church of Cyprus, and the semi-autonomous Church of Cyprus).

 Select Eastern Orthodox Christmas Traditions 

As I plan to update this blog, let me simply for now share four traditions from the Churches listed above. As time goes on, I will add this yearly as I have with the earlier Christmas post.

Russian and Ukrainian Customs

In Russia and Ukraine, Grandfather Frost (Ded Moroz in Russian and Did Moróz in Ukrainian) visits children who have been good on New Year's Eve (which predates Christmas in the Julian Calendar). Grandfather Frost is accompanied by his granddaughter Snowmaiden (Snegurochka in Russian and Snihurónka in Ukrainian). 

Grandfather Frost in many ways resembles the Western Santa Claus. They both wear red coats with
Grandfather Frost and Snowmaiden
white trim, both are old men with long white beards and both bring gifts. Where Santa and Grandfather Frost diverge is the nature of the clothing -- both may be red, but Grandfather Frost wears red linen with silver and gold ornamental patterns embroidered throughout while Santa Claus pretty much wears red velvet. Santa rides through the sky with a team of eight reindeer that magically fly. 
Ded Moroz rides in a regular (if fancy) sleigh drawn by three horses.  Santa lives at the North Pole while Ded Moroz officially lives in the Russia city of Veliky Ustyug (you can visit him there too). Finally, Santa has no helpers while Grandfather Frost granddaughter -- the Snowmaiden -- dressed in white with a white headdress.

Santa Claus Ded Moroz differ also in their origin --Ded Moroz predates Santa Claus by centuries; in fact, he predates Christianity with his origins in pagan customs.

Serbian Customs

Serbs celebrate Christmas Eve with a badnjak -- an oaken log around which various regions and families have differing custom. Generally, the male leader of the family (joined by other male family members) goes into the woods to select a perfect oak tree or branch, especially one with golden leaves.  While traditions vary, generally the head of the family then stands to the east of the tree and tosses ceremonial grain in its direction, while greeting the tree with a blessing, the sign of the cross and a kiss before cutting it down in a traditional way (often at a slant). The badnjak is then brought to the house and burnt. The fire symbolizes the fire brought by the three Magi to warm the manger where Christ was born. Since the badnjak tradition is untenable in urban settings, alternatives have arisen. One is simply to place oaken twigs and leaves in a fireplace and burn those. Another -- often done in combination with burning twigs -- is to decorate the family home with wreaths made from oak. Finally, in some communities, the local church sets up a communal badnjak fire. This is often accompanied by religious songs and a festive gathering among friends.

Sharing food with family and friends is part of Serbian Christmas. While many different foods are common to the day, perhaps the most widely anticipated is that of ćesnica. Ćesnica is a round bread made with often elaborate patterns and religious decoration on top. While the recipes and patterns used on the bread differ from family custom to family custom, they all share one thing in common: a silver coin baked inside. Tradition says that whoever gets the piece of bread with the coin will have good luck for the coming year. 

Serbian ćesnica

Another Serbian custom involves placing straw on the floor, in recognition that Jesus was born in a manger. Often wheat and walnuts are scattered on the floor of the dining room, which for some Serbs symbolizes health and good fortune for the coming year.

Egypt (Coptic) Customs

Most of Egypt's Christians belong to the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria. Again, while the Copts have their own calendar, Christmas remains the same as the Julian calendar. The Coptic calendar, though, is important in the Christmas celebrations. For the 45 days leading up to Christmas (the 29th of the Coptic month of Khiahk), Copts traditionally eat no meat or dairy, becoming vegetarians until Christmas comes. 

Coptic fatta
On Christmas Eve, Copts go to religious ceremonies that start at 11:00 PM and pass through midnight. After the service is over, everyone goes home to a late-night feast. The center of this feast is the meat and rice dish of fatta, which breaks the meat fast. 

After eating and well into the next day, many Copts set off firecrackers, although Egyptian law (formally at least) forbids firecrackers. Children traditionally are given new clothing to wear and Christmas day is spent going to concerts of Christmas carols. It is also traditional to give food to the poor on Christmas day, sharing especially Christmas donuts called zalabya and mullet fish (bouri).

Ethiopian Christmas Customs

Ethiopian Christmas -- or Genna -- follows the Ethiopian calendar, although this aligns with the Julian calendar for the holiday. The focus is very much on the birthday of Christ, so another name for the holiday is simply Lidet or "Birthday."

Genna Procession, Ethiopia
Most Ethiopian Orthodox worshippers fast in various forms until Christmas Day. The custom is to walk in procession to the local church wearing fresh white clothing, arriving late on Christmas Eve. Once at church, the congregants hold an all-night service, coming home in the morning to break their fast. The meal starts with flaxseed oil (to prepare the fasting stomach), strong Ethiopian coffee (to stay awake after the all-night service) and then on to the traditional spicy chicken stew called doro wot

One of the most unique customs of Christmas Day is the playing of a game unique to the day. As explained in Selamta (the magazine of Ethiopian Airlines):

Perhaps the most unique aspect of the Ethiopian Christmas tradition is that it is associated with a sport, also called Genna, that is most widely played during the holiday season. According to Ethiopian legend, when the shepherds of the biblical Christmas story were informed of the birth of the Messiah, they expressed their overwhelming joy by using their staffs to break into a spontaneous game that resembles field hockey. The afternoon of Genna is filled with matches of the game, played mainly by young men, and potentially other sporting activities such as horse racing. 
Playing the sport of Genna on Genna in Ethiopia

May those celebrating Christmas this January 7, may you have a blessed holiday.

Want to Learn More

On Russian and Ukrainian Customs

Mat Auryn (December 17, 2018), "Ded Moroz: The Cruel & Kind Grandfather Frost," Patheos, https://www.patheos.com/blogs/matauryn/2018/12/17/ded-moroz/

"Of Russian origin: Ded Moroz," (nd), Russiapedia,  https://russiapedia.rt.com/of-russian-origin/ded-moroz/ 

Eugenia Sokolskaya (November 18, 2014), "Grandfather Frost: More than just Santa Claus," Russian Lifehttps://russianlife.com/stories/online/grandfather-frost-more-than-just-santa-claus/

On Serbian Customs

Gordona Andric (january 6, 2014), "Celebrate Christmas, Serbian Style," Balkan Insight, http://www.balkaninsight.com/en/article/celebrate-christmas-serbian-style

Barbara Rolek (June 6, 2018), "Serbian Christmas Bread (Sweet Česnica)", The Spruce Eats, https://www.thespruceeats.com/serbian-christmas-bread-sweet-cesnica-1135833

Barbara Rolek (November 26, 2018), "Serbian Christmas Traditions", The Spruce Eats, https://www.thespruceeats.com/serbian-christmas-traditions-1135801

On Coptic Customs

W. C. Egan (2002), "Christmas in Egypt," Christmas World, http://christmas-world.freeservers.com/egypt.html

Reem Tolba (January 5, 2018), "Ways to Celebrate Coptic Christmas in the Middle East," Scoop Empire, https://scoopempire.com/ways-celebrate-coptic-christmas-middle-east/

On Ethiopian Customs

"Christmas in Ethiopia: The unique traditions of Ethiopian Christmas" (Jan-Feb, 2017), Selamta

"Ethiopian Genna -- Christmas" (December 19, 2017), Ethiopian Newsweek, https://www.ethiopianewsweek.com/%E2%80%8Bethiopian-genna-christmas/

Dianne Weller (nd), "Christmas in Ethiopia: Symbolism Amid Food, Fun and Games," Xmas Trivia, 

Illustration Sources

Opening clip art by Sergey Skryl, Orthodox Christmas Eve Card, Royalty Free Vector Clipart,  https://vector-images.com/clipart/clp96975/

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