Still waiting for Christmas…

Posted December 29, 2016 By mashaholl

Just like when I was little.

I know, it’s December 29. But I’m still waiting. Christmas still comes after New Year’s.

It’s not because we have the wrong day, or the wrong date, or anything like that.

It’s because for many Orthodox Christian Churches, religious dates still are reckoned according to the Julian calendar, while the “normal” dates follow the Gregorian calendar — and that creates a 13-day offset.

I know. The calculations that make the Julian and Gregorian calendar different will keep increasing this offset, I’m aware of it, but I choose to ignore it for the purpose of this post because that’s not the point of it. And also because it’s too much math and I’ll let math-geeks deal with it. I’ll just adjust when I have to, add and extra day or whatever to the reckoning… Why worry when it hasn’t happened yet? It’s not the numbers that matter. It’s the reason for them.

So where was I?

Ah yes. Christmas is still to come. Because Russians celebrate Christmas “old style.”

По старому стилю.

When I was growing up, as an émigré child, I was quite aware that the religious dates followed their own calendar and that there was a mathematical formula to reconcile them with the secular calendar. I don’t remember calling it “secular,” or even quite having the concept of a “secular” and a “religious” or “sacred” calendar. But I do remember having the sense that our holy days were special and did not correspond in any way (not even by date) with those of the surrounding world. The hullaballoo surrounding Christmas, in the end, never quite touched us, even though I’m sure there were times I wished I could have shared the season a bit better with the world surrounding us.

So the two calendars we used had simple and practical definitions.

The Old Style calendar (which I didn’t know then was the Julian calendar) was for holidays. So really, we celebrated Christmas on December 25th (still do), but Old Style, that is by the Julian calendar — which means it falls on the 7th of January by the civil, or normal, or secular, or regular, or Gregorian calendar.

To make things a little more complicated, the 13-day offset doesn’t apply to Easter. Just so you know. How the date for Easter is determined is a whole other set of calculations.

Are you still following me?

Because if you’re a little lost, that’s OK. A lot of Russians get confused, too.

It doesn’t help that when you’re trying to find out when a specific (minor) holiday is, you’re just as likely to find the Old Style (Julian) date as the New Style (Gregorian) date.

Let’s review.

See the calendar on your wall? It’s set up according to the rules and calculations of Pope Gregory XIII. It’s the civil calendar of the Western world.

But Orthodox Christian nations were late in adopting the Gregorian calendar, and kept the Julian calendar as their official and civil calendar for a long time. And even when the various states adopted the Gregorian calendar as their official civil and secular calendar, the Churches were slower yet to switch. Some Orthodox Christian Churches never switched and continue to date days (and feasts) according to the Julian calendar.

So civil celebrations and official holidays were marked on the Gregorian — official and secular — calendar, while Church feasts, fasts, and celebrations continued to be marked on the Julian (and church) calendar — with a 13-day offset from the secular calendar.

The confusion stems more from the common nickname for the Julian-vs.-Gregorian dating system in Russian: old style vs. new style. Even though it’s been in place since the beginning of the 20th century (not so new anymore), the Gregorian calendar is still referred to as the new style dating!

For the Russian émigré communities, pre-1991 (that is before the breakup of the Soviet Union), the Old Style calendar offered an additional, convenient, and humorous way to organize a social schedule somewhat in parallel to the overwhelming mainstream life.

To mark the beginning of the year, Russian émigrés often tried to organize some kind of social event (a dinner, a soirée, a dance) around the 13th of January, and dubbed it the “Old New Year” — short, of course, for the “new year, old style.”


Of course any date would have been as good, but when you have a meaningful date you can use, you do.

Was it symbolic? Not particularly. Maybe a little. Also in the way of a riddle and a pun.

Certainly, it was done with the awareness that we organized our get-togethers on January 13th (by the Gregorian/official calendar) because it coincided with the Julian January 1st, but not actually on January 1st according to the Julian calendar.

Why did it matter?

And it did matter, even if no one actually spelled it out. Because the Old Style calendar, the Julian calendar, was for religious holidays and dates. It was (and still is) the Church calendar. New Year’s is the ultimate secular celebration (the Church year begins on September 1st). So the so-called “old new year” is celebrated by reference to the Julian calendar, not according to the Julian calendar.

But why does it really matter?

Because the continued use of the Gregorian and the Julian calendar create a greater separation between the sacred and the profane, and sometimes all that’s needed is an understanding of the difference.