January 7 is Christmas Day in countries as far afield as Russia, Ethiopia and Greece. But why choose this day to celebrate? And how is the occasion marked?
By Harriet Alexander, and Harriet Line. Graphic by Rory Norton |
While in the UK, USA and much of the world Christmas Day is December 25, in a surprisingly-high number of countries celebrate Christmas on January 7.
This is because some countries use a different calendar.
In the West we use the Gregorian calendar, originally proposed by Pope Gregory in 1582.
But in much of the former Soviet Union and Middle East they remain on the Julian calendar, created under the reign of Julius Caesar in 45 BC.
Germany didn’t accepted the Gregorian calendar until 1775, while Bulgaria didn’t do so until 1917.
And nowadays most countries use the Gregorian calendar, but retain the Julian one for their traditional holidays. There are 13 days in difference between the two calendars.
“December 25 on the Julian calendar actually falls on January 7 on the Gregorian calendar,” said Archimandrite Christopher Calin, dean of the Russian Orthodox Cathedral of the Holy Virgin Protection.
“So strictly speaking, Christmas is still kept on December 25 – which just happens to fall 13 days later on the Julian calendar.”
Some of the same Christmas traditions are shared among most countries which observe the Julian calendar.
Christmas is preceded with a period of fasting, where meat is off cut out of the diet for 40 days. A manger scene is often recreated, sometimes with hay being brought into the house to decorate the rooms. Christmas Eve ios marked with a special dinner, which frequently features 12 dishes to represent the 12 apostles. And feasting is sumptuous on Christmas Day itself, with prized delicacies from that particular country.
But other traditions are unique to that particular nation.
In Greece, St Nicholas is the patron saint of sailors, whose beard and clothes are wet from seawater – much of the celebrations focus on blessing the seas.
In Ethiopia, people dress in white to attend church services and afterwards play sporting tournaments.
And in Serbia, families set out on Christmas Eve to find an oak branch in the forest (or in their market, in urban areas) to decorate their homes.
When the head of household finds a suitable tree, he stands in front of it facing east. After throwing grain at the tree, he greets it with the words “Good morning and happy Christmas Eve to you”, makes the Sign of the Cross, says a prayer, and kisses the tree. He may also explain to the oak why it will be cut: “I have come to you to take to my home, to be my faithful helper to every progress and improvement, in the house, in the pen, in the field, and in every place.”
He then cuts it slantwise on its eastern side, using an axe. The tree should fall to the east, unhindered by surrounding trees. It must not be left half-cut, as then it will curse the house of the man. In some regions, if the tree is not cut down after the third blow of the axe, then it must be pulled and twisted until its trunk breaks.