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Thursday, December 16, 2010

Not Exactly “Bah Humbug!” but …

Orthodox Christianity has a complicated attitude towards western Christmas.  First there's the date.  I have lost count of the number of times I have had to put people right on this when they have said:-“Oh, your Christmas is later in January isn't it, the 6th I think?”  “Er no,” I reply.  “We use the New Calendar so our celebration is on the same day as yours.”  True, Easter (which we call Pascha) is usually on a different date and the same across the whole Orthodox world (except Finland for reasons I won't go into now) but Christmas (which we call Nativity!)  is celebrated on two different days across the Orthodox Church.  In the Slav and some other traditions Christmas is celebrated on the civil calendar on the 7th of January (not the 6th) but this is only because the Church in Eastern Europe, Russia, Mt. Athos and Jerusalem did not change the Church Calendar when the civil calendar, starting in the 16th century in Western Europe advanced 11 days to take account of inaccuracies in the astronomical measurement of the year which had accumulated over the centuries.  As of now this gap and the reckoning has widened to 13 days which is why Old Calendar Orthodox churches celebrate the Nativity of our Lord 13 days after 25th December on 7th January.  Remember though that even there the Church Calendar is still showing 25th December.  Confused yet?!

The complications don't end with the date.  Please don't say to an Orthodox priest (particularly):- “Oh I suppose this must be your busiest time of year,” because it isn't.  Far from it; is one of the slowest and easiest times of the year … except of course a priest is never off duty.  Pascha (Easter) is a time when we have more services; here in Manchester in my parish at the last count some 15 services across nine days.  At the Nativity (Christmas) I shall have just 4. 

It’s not that the Orthodox don't believe in Christmas for goodness sake!  The birth of Christ, the feast of the Incarnation is a major feast of the Lord and at the heart of our faith but we don't go in for wall to wall carol services and all the commercial razzmatazz but now makes of Western Christmas a feast of Mammon.  There are some theological differences as well though and it must be conceded that notwithstanding the importance of the Incarnation it is the death and resurrection of Christ at Easter that provides the main driving force of Orthodoxy’s confession of faith.  Since culturally, this has never been quite the same in the West and particularly in northern Europe, the Christian perception of Christmas has been obscured by the rather bloated growth of a secular sentimentality concerning the birth of the “baby-Jesus.”  Even that is gone now to be replaced by an orgy of consumption in a secularised version of the feast.  So there is something of a muted “Bah Humbug!” coming from the Orthodox direction here.  Won’t you let us give us your Christmas back please?

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