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Christmas Over? Not Yet

For more than 200 million Christians, celebrations of Jesus’ birth are still two weeks away.


Different calendar, same holiday

You're stuffed. The feast is still in your system, weighing you down. The gifts are unwrapped, and in a post-gluttonous haze you're reading online news.

Christmas at last is over, and New Year's is on the way.

Well, not so fast. Unless your tree has started to rot in its base, you might want to leave it up. For much of the world, the Christmas season goes on for another two weeks.

Hundreds of millions of people – all the Orthodox Christians and other faithful who still mark their holidays by the Roman-era Julian calendar – celebrate the birth of Jesus on January 6-7.

Russia is the world’s largest Orthodox country, followed by Ukraine. Germany is one of the small ones, with just over a million followers, mostly of Slavic descent.

The difference in the Orthodox church calendar goes back to 1582, when Pope Gregory XIII consulted astronomers and replaced the old Julian system with a “Gregorian calendar” that reduced variation of the date of Easter.

But the break between the two parts of Christianity actually goes back much farther. The Orthodox lands commonly referred to as the “East” and the Catholic and Protestant territories labelled as the “West” recognise each others’ common faith, but with some doctrinal differences.

In 1054, long before Protestantism even existed, the Orthodox and Roman Catholics fell out over doctrinal fine points and ex-communicated each other’s followers. A cataclysmic break, it is known to this day as the Great Schism.

Some wounds don’t heal, but these might yet.

The world’s Christian churches do not all share one communion table, but as the world "shrinks" and inter-faith dialogue increases, they are increasingly willing to recognise and appreciate each other’s traditions.

After all, they all go back to the same story: the son of God, come to free the world from sin, born as the child of an ordinary couple in Palestine. They all draw on the same history accounts of Jesus.

So Orthodox Christmas is a case in point.

Nowadays, many Catholics and Protestants in Orthodox countries celebrate the holiday by attending midnight mass on January 6.

Likewise, Orthodox followers have picked up the tradition of exchanging gifts on December 25, as much as anything to stick to the commercial calendar that Western advertisers have exported eastward since the end of the Cold War opened the whole Orthodox world to their products.

Father Christmas does double duty in cities like Moscow – where he’s known as “Ded Moroz”, Papa Frost – taking the Gregorian shift in December but hanging around for the Julian holiday two weeks later.

His job isn't over. Your holiday need not be either.

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