Orthodox Christmas Date: January 7
Orthodox Christmas is a religious observance for Orthodox Christians all over the world.
Orthodox Coptic Christmas isn’t celebrated on December 25 as in most of the Western world because Coptic Christians follow the Julian calendar which has a 14-day difference from the Gregorian calendar used by Western Christians. Calendars differences aside, it is the same holiday in which the birth of Jesus is celebrated.
History of Orthodox Christmas
Coptic refers to the Christian Church in Egypt that follows the traditions and teachings from the Alexandria school. Before even Jesus was born, there were celebrations on this day since it was the darkest of days in winter after which the days become longer and there was more daylight. In ancient Rome there was a pagan feast called Saturnalia dedicated to Saturn, god of Agriculture. Eating and drinking were the rules of this feast. Other feasts were also celebrated on this time; the feast of Juvenalia for children and the celebration of the birth of Mithra, the god of Sun, on December 25.
We do not know the exact date of Jesus’ birth, but we know the story from the Bible. In Nazareth, 2010 years ago, a young woman by the name of Mary gave birth to a baby that would be named Jesus by Joseph to whom Mary was engaged. Many years after, Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. Church officials decided that something needed to be done about the pagan feasts of winter. So it was decided by the Catholic Church to place the celebration of the birth of Jesus on December 25, not only because of the meaning of light and life, but also to put an end to all the pagan celebrations.
By this time the Julian calendar was still the official calendar that marked all the celebrations. But it was not an accurate calendar since it followed the phases of the moon and not the sun. In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII introduced a more accurate calendar to help determine the exact dates of Easter and Christmas. But Protestants and Orthodox Churches did not follow the Catholic calendar and created a gap between the celebrations of Catholic Christians on December 25 and Orthodox Christians on January 7. So today there is the celebration of Christmas and the celebration of Old Christmas.
Orthodox Christmas Traditions, Customs and Activities
Orthodox Christmas is a day of joyous celebrations and solemn rituals. In Russia and ex-Soviet republics, it is tradition to fast during the day until the first star appears in the sky and then have the Christmas dinner called Holy Supper. The meal is still very modest and it is mostly a celebration that gathers the family together to enjoy the birth of Jesus rather than the food. There is a white cloth covering the table and hay on the floor to remember the manger where Christ was born. A white candle is placed in the middle of the table to symbolize the light that Jesus brought forth by his word, and bread called pagach, a symbol of Jesus as the bread of life, is served. The bread is to be eaten with honey and garlic, symbols of the sweetness and the bitterness of life, and thanks are given for the year that has just passed. These are basic celebratory traditions not only in Russia but also around the Orthodox world. Even if in many countries the Orthodox faithful live in troubled areas like Kosovo, the West Bank in Jerusalem, or southern Egypt, Christmas is always a joyful celebration that gives more importance to the peace in man’s heart than the violence around him.