Christmas Day and the post-Christmas season usually bring with them a number of things not overwhelming helpful—Boxing Day stampedes, post-Christmas let-down, unwelcome news when stepping on the bathroom scale, and polemical digs about those benighted people using the “papal calendar” instead of “the Church’s Traditional Calendar”—i.e. the Julian calendar. It can be rather confusing to those outside of Orthodoxy, especially when they have been told that Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas on January 7, thirteen days later than Christians of the West. When I tell them that many Orthodox celebrate Christmas with other Christians on December 25 and that even those Orthodox who use the Julian calendar also celebrate Christmas on December 25 but just don’t get around to that date until January 7, their eyes tend to glaze over. I suspect they conclude that we are all a bit crazy, and the mysteries of the Orthodox calendar partake of the same mind-numbing incomprehensibility as our doctrine of the Trinity, so that for us three=1, and December 25=January 7. In fairness to them, it can be a bit confusing.
In sorting the thing out, it is important not to let triumphalist rhetoric detach us from the sober facts of history. For example, contrary to what some fervent advocates of the Julian calendar sometimes say, the Council of Nicea did not in fact mandate the use of the Old Calendar, or in fact any particular civil calendar. Though it does not show up in the twenty extant canons of that Council, most historians nonetheless assert that the Council did however mandate something regarding the computation of Pascha so that all the Church could fast and feast together. The history of the Council is complex and those wanting to learn more about its intricacies may read about them here.
Briefly, the Church eventually decided that Pascha would be held on the Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox. That of course left the astronomical heavy lifting of determining exactly when the spring equinox fell to others. Such technicalities and the question of which civil calendar the Church used were not broached by the Council Fathers. The Church calendar was a grid, something to be placed over the civil calendar of the day to tell Christians when to celebrate certain feasts. It would say, for example, that Christmas must be celebrated on December 25, that Theophany must be celebrated on January 6, and that Transfiguration must be celebrated on August 6. The question about exactly when December 25, January 6, and August 6 fell were matters for the astronomers producing civil calendars, not for non-astronomical bishops leading their flocks in worship.
In the centuries following, it was apparent to all that the civil calendar upon which the Church’s calendar was based was astronomically out of whack and becoming more out of whack with the passing of time and needed to be corrected and made more astronomically accurate. The job, of course, was one for the universities, and their help was solicited by the Roman Catholic Church in the 16th century. A suggestion for correction was made by the University of Salamanca in 1515, which was not acted upon. In 1577 certain mathematicians were asked to weigh in. Others also weighed in, including one Christopher Clavius, who argued the technicalities in a door-stopper of a book stretching to 800 pages. The Pope of the day, Gregory XIII, thought this was the way to go, and mandated the new corrected calendar and system for use in the Roman Church in 1582.
Of course this had no legal weight outside the Roman Church, and it was up to countries to use or not use the new more accurate calendar according to their secular wishes. Eventually though everyone in Europe and beyond decided that accuracy, even if originating within the Roman Church, was preferable to inaccuracy, and so country after country signed on and began using the calendar for as their civil calendar. Not surprisingly the Catholic countries signed on first, with Spain, Portugal, France, Italy and the Catholic Low Countries adopting it in 1582. Bohemia signed on two years later in 1584. Prussia signed on in 1610, and the Protestant Low Countries came around in 1700. Protestant Britain adopted it in 1752, followed the next year by Sweden and Finland. Japan adopted it in 1873, and Egypt in 1875. China and Albania signed on in 1912, the USSR in 1918, followed by Greece in 1923 and Turkey in 1926. Of course using the corrected calendar as their civil calendar did not mean also adopting it as a religious one, and Russia (for example) continued to use the old Julian calendar for its church feasts. Such a bi-calendrical usage introduced a kind of liturgical schizophrenia into life, so that one might place one’s order for Christmas chocolate on December 25 and not actually get around to celebrating and eating the chocolate until the Church’s December 25 which was January 7. The simple question, “What day is it today?” could no longer be answered until one had some context and knew whether the questioner referred to the day as reckoned in street or in the Church.
Those who insist that the Orthodox Church must use the Julian calendar as the basis for the Church feasts are unfazed by this. They point out that there are advantages in using the Julian calendar despite its acknowledged inaccuracies and the confusion it can bring. Foremost among them is the fact that using the Julian calendar stresses the difference between Orthodoxy and the rest of the Christian world—in other words, that the calendar becomes a symbolic bulwark against an ecumenism which would dissolve Orthodoxy’s purity and make it just another Christian denomination with no more claim to be the true Church than anyone else.
That is true, and its value should not be dismissed out of hand. But it should be also acknowledged that one can retain Orthodoxy’s historic claim to be the true Church and resist a false and corrosive ecumenism while still using the new corrected calendar. It is nonsense to describe the new calendar as “the papal calendar” simply because it originated in the Roman Church, as if using the corrected calendar somehow allies one with the papists. Staunch Scottish Calvinists have been using that calendar for some time now and there is zero evidence that using it has made them more papal and less Calvinist, Presbyterian, or dour than they were before. (They may indeed be less Calvinist or dour than before, but that can hardly be laid at the feet of their calendar. And they are hardly more papal.) Describing the corrected calendar as “the papal calendar” is like describing German beer as “Lutheran beer” because Germany is filled with Lutherans, or describing the kilt as a “Presbyterian vestment” because Scotland is filled with Presbyterians. The calendar is used by Protestant Scotland, Shintoist Japan, Muslim Turkey and atheistic China. The issue is not and never has been the provenance of the calendar, but its intrinsic merits and accuracy. The corrected calendar is not “papal” in the sense that the Tridentine Mass is papal—i.e. that it is the badge of those pledging loyalty to the bishop of Rome. Describing it as “papal” is neither sensible nor helpful.
One of course admits that it would be a good thing if the entire Orthodox world were using the same calendar. But this argument cuts both ways, and is as much an argument for those using the Julian calendar to adopt the new corrected one as vice-versa. It is true that most of the Orthodox world uses the Julian calendar, but that is simply because one of its autocephalous members (Russia) is so large. Such things cannot be decided simply by counting heads.
At the present time it seems as if the Orthodox world will have to survive with the use of two calendars, so that it keeps its solar feasts such as Christmas at different times. (The Paschal cycle with its dates for the Lenten fast and Pascha and Pentecost are pretty much the same throughout the Orthodox world.) We can easily survive such diversity with the exercise of a little good will. And surely, such good will is large part of what Christmas is all about?