I had a chance to chat with Fr. Stephen Wojcichowsky, Director of the Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky Institute
in Ottawa, a specialized institution to spread knowledge of the Christian East. We talked about the Julian-calendar Christmas.
MR: Why two different dates for Christmas?
Fr. Stephen: There are not two different dates. It’s the same date, Dec. 25th…. Imagine you have two transparent leafs for each calendar. When you superimpose the Julian calendar onto the Gregorian calendar, you see that December 25th on the Julian calendar falls on January 7 of the Gregorian calendar. In fact, all of the dates that are on the Julian calendar are the same as for the Gregorian calendar – it’s just that they are separated by 13 days. When the Gregorian calendar leapt forward in the 16th century, it advanced the calendar by 10 days. The gap between the calendars keeps widening every century or so. Now we are 13 days apart; in 2100 we will be 14 days apart. By then, December 25th on the Julian calendar will fall on January 8th of the Gregorian calendar.
Other faith traditions base their festivals on the lunar calendar (the Islamic tradition) or on a combination of solar and lunar calendars (the Jewish tradition). Muslims celebrate Ramadan at different parts of the year depending on their lunar calculations. The Jewish people celebrate Hanukkah more or less at the same time as Christmas but it doesn’t always fall on the same day in December. The Julian calendar December 25th always falls on January 7th, and then it’ll be fixed on January 8th for another 100 years. Even so the Gregorian calendar is not astronomically accurate anymore.
When I was growing up, the spring equinox was on March 21st, and now it can be on March 20th, because we are able to be more accurate in calculating the Gregorian calendar. So neither calendar is perfect. The Gregorian is the most precise that we have at this point.
MR: Why do some people stick with the Julian calendar?
Fr. Stephen: First of all, it connects them to their roots, the tradition of their ancestors. As well, many people have family in other parts of the world where the Julian calendar is the predominant liturgical calendar. It is to be in solidarity with them that they observe it. In addition, many find that celebrating the Lord’s Nativity at a time after all the hype and glitter of the Gregorian Christmas has passed allows for a more spiritual focus to the observance. Still others believe that following the Julian calendar allows them to be more faithful to the traditional dating of Easter (or “Pascha” as it is known in the Eastern Christian tradition).
MR: What are some of the special traditions for January 6th and 7th for those who follow the Julian- calendar Christmas?
Fr. Stephen: Christmas really starts on Jan. 6th, on the Eve of Christmas. We always celebrate the Eve of Christmas in a big way because it’s an important preparatory day. We pray the Royal Hours (similar to the liturgy of the hours), we celebrate a Divine Liturgy with Vespers (the Divine Liturgy of St. Basil the Great instead of the more common Divine Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom), and then we have a special 12-course meatless meal at home which we call the Holy Supper. Sometimes parishes will share the meal together.
Here at the Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky Institute, we celebrate with the local community. On January 6th, we’ll be over at the Holy Spirit Seminary, where we’ll have the Holy Supper at six o’clock, and then the Office of Compline at 9 pm, ending with the Nativity liturgy at 11 pm. It’ll go well beyond midnight. We don’t start our Institute classes this week to allow professors and students to be with their families.
MR: Do you also celebrate the Christmas octave?
Fr. Stephen: Yes, absolutely, and not only the octave -- we celebrate for 40 days! What Roman Catholics call Epiphany, we call Theophany. On January 6th or 19th (depending upon the calendar), we celebrate Theophany, and we do this for 8 days. It’s like a special interlude in the 40 days of Christmas.
MR: What are your favourite parts of the celebrations?
Fr. Stephen: Certainly, liturgically, the parts of the liturgy are so rich with symbols, so rich with the depth of understanding of the theology and magnificence of what this Incarnation of the Lord means for us.
On a family level, of course, the 12-course meatless meal is always a highlight for us. The day of preparation for a big feast is usually a fast day. Now, if you had this meal, you wouldn’t feel like you fasted in terms of food intake, but at least it’s abstinence from meat. It’s also a way to get back to the earth. Our Ukrainian ancestors were very tied to the rhythm of nature and the cycle of the seasons, so we use grains, the harvest of the earth.
We have a special dish we call kutia (pronounced koot-ya), made up of boiled wheat, poppy seeds, honey, nuts. That’s the first dish everybody will taste. At the end of the prayer, the head of the household, holding a spoonful of this kutia, will wish everybody the very best of the holy season and throw a spoonful of it onto the ceiling. This is a throwback to the ancient days – the idea was that however many grains that stick on the ceiling will be an indication of how bountiful your livestock will be and what an abundance of eggs your chicken will lay.
So you see, for us, it’s not only human beings that were renewed by the Lord’s birth. All of creation was touched by the Incarnation, and during Christmas, we celebrate that.
To find out more about the Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky Institute
in Ottawa, Ontario, visit HERE
. Also, check out the Catholic Focus
episode The Light of the East: Understanding the Eastern Catholic Churches
by going to the Catholic Focus webpage HERE
And once again, from all of us at Salt + Light, a very merry Christmas to our brothers and sisters of the Eastern Christian tradition!