‘East is East, and West is West’–Celebrating Arab American, Eastern Orthodox Christmas, January 7
By John Mason/ Arab America Contributing Writer
As most of our readers already know, Christmas is celebrated around the world on different dates. In the case of Arabs, some celebrate the western rite on December 25, while those of the eastern rite do so on either December 24 or January 7. Here we look at some of the differences between the two celebrations, which are mainly due to the use of, you guessed it—different calendars.
Different Calendars—Different Dates
Perhaps not surprisingly, the exact month and day of Jesus’ birth are not precisely known. This did not deter the Church, however, in this case, the Catholic Church, in the fourth century, from assigning an exact date. It designated December 25, which corresponded to the winter solstice on the old Roman calendar. The confusion between the December or January dates, though, began even before the birth of Jesus. It was in 45 BC when Roman Emperor, Julius Caesar, authorized the use of the calendar named after him, the Julian Calendar.
It turns out, however, that the Julian Calendar was based on the lunar calendar, whose months began from the start of a new crescent moon. This calendar was flawed, though, since it had miscalculated the length of the solar year by eleven minutes or 13 days per year. It was thus out of sync with the seasons. The Catholic Church again stepped into the breach to correct this anomaly, by introducing the Gregorian Calendar in 1582, named for the Pope at that time—Gregory. Adding a leap year to that calendar was how it was corrected. The change was characterized by a statement that the new calendar was moved ahead 13 days, thus “catching up with the sun.”
Most Christians celebrate Christmas on December 25, following the Gregorian Calendar. That calendar, incidentally, has been adopted by countries around the world and is used almost universally as the civil calendar. It is noted, however, that some Muslim countries alternately use the Islamic or Hijri calendar, which is a lunar calendar based on the year—622 AD/CE—when Muhammed and his followers migrated from Mecca to Medina to establish the first Muslim community.
January 7 for Eastern Christian Churches is more-or-less just a date
So, until 1582, all Christians celebrated Christmas on the 25th of December. Following that date, many Eastern Christian churches continued to celebrate Christmas on the 25th, but using the Julian calendar, which currently corresponds to January 7 in the Gregorian calendar. It was mainly Christians in the so-called eastern part of the world (actually Middle Eastern) who were part of the Orthodox Church in Constantinople (now Istanbul) who continued to follow the Julian calendar.
Only in more recent years of the 19th and 20th centuries did the Orthodox adopt the Gregorian calendar for civic purposes, but not for religious holidays. Thus, in places such as Bulgaria, Ethiopia, Greece, Lebanon, Romania, and Russia, do the Christians continue to celebrate Christmas on January 7. That is the day Eastern Orthodox Christian Arab immigrants from Lebanon to America celebrate Jesus’ birthday. These now well-entrenched immigrants from Lebanon to the U.S. are quite clear that the day January 7 is a tradition established by a calendar, but that it is the message of their faith of the coming of Christ that is their primary purpose in celebrating Christmas.
On that note, a Merry Christmas to our Arab American Orthodox Christian family and friends—even if you celebrated it once already in December!
“Notes of a Winnipeg grandfather,” 12/23/2011
“Why some Christians celebrate Christmas on January 7,” Al-Jazeera 1/5/2018
John Mason, PhD., who focuses on Arab culture, society, and history, is the author of LEFT-HANDED IN AN ISLAMIC WORLD: An Anthropologist’s Journey into the Middle East, New Academia Publishing, 2017. He has taught at the University of Libya, Benghazi, Rennselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York, and the American University in Cairo; John served with the United Nations in Tripoli, Libya, and consulted extensively on socioeconomic and political development for USAID, the UN, and the World Bank in 65 countries.
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