If you Google ‘Christmas’ right now, you will find a lot of Christians around the world just beginning to get into the Christmas spirit. Just as your young people are going back to school and you’re getting your head back into consent forms, finishing off the last mince pies and turkey sandwiches, there will be people jumping into lakes, rivers and icy ponds to find a cross that has been thrown there by a priest. Why is that? What Christian festivals are going on right now and why are people just starting to celebrate Christmas on January 7th? Isn't Christmas the 25th of December?
Well, yes, Christmas is on December the 25th. These Christians haven't moved Christmas. In fact, they are still celebrating Christmas on a calendar first established by the Roman Emperor Julius Caesar (Julian calendar). His calendar was slightly incorrect - about eleven minutes a year out of sync with the sun and moon. Most of the time that doesn't matter but over the last thousand or more years this has grown to a massive 13 days difference! Nowadays we use a different calendar to work out what day of the week it is, established by Saint Gregory (Gregorian calendar). Many Christians, especially Orthodox Christians still use the old Julian calendar to calculate when their church services happen. This means that their Christmas is just happening now, 13 days later than you might expect.
Orthodox Christians still use the oldest practices, established by the Christians that we read about in the bible. They also fast before a great Christian festival like Christmas. In the same way that you wouldn't have a sneaky burger on the way to a dinner party, Orthodox Christians try to avoid too much food and partying before Christmas. Imagine what it's like trying not to celebrate Christmas with decorations, parties and tonnes of food, while you are waiting for your Christmas to come! On the other hand, it does have its advantages. You can get your Christmas presents in the sales!
To be serious for moment, though, Jesus is still ‘the reason for the season’ and the birth of God as the human Jesus is still an amazing event and we glorify and worship God almost as intensely as we do at Easter for the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.
January 6th was originally more important than Christmas because at this time Orthodox Christians celebrate something called Theophany. The term ‘theo’ means God and ‘phany’ means ‘made visible’. At this time of year we celebrate the baptism of Jesus - the first time that the full nature of God is made visible as God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit, still one God. In the early church, the celebration of the baptism of Jesus was more important than his birth. All of Jesus’ childhood was wrapped up in one celebration - the time when he was revealed as the Son of God at his baptism. This is why you will see pictures of people blessing the water, jumping into the water after a cross, or immersing themselves in frozen lakes – they are remembering that Jesus blessed the waters of creation as God at his baptism.
So, next time you have a late mince pie on your way to youth group, remember that the young life of Jesus is celebrated at this time, from Christmas day to the celebration of his baptism.
Fr Timothy Curtis is priest-in-charge at St Anne's Orthodox parish in Northampton. He is also a lecturer in community work at the University of Northampton.
Why does the Orthodox Christmas fall on 7th January?
His Grace Bishop Angaelos, General Bishop of the Coptic orthodox Church, joins Inspirational Breakfast to tell us why. Click play below to listen: