Christmas and New Year is a time when many Orthodox Christians who follow the Julian (old) calendar wonder why they do so; or rather, those who follow the Gregorian (new) calendar wonder why the old calendar Churches don’t want to change. Here is another thorough look at this question, from a number of angles.
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Lately the question often arises: Why does the Russian Orthodox Church live by the Julian calendar when the whole world and the majority of Orthodox Local Churches have long since changed to the Gregorian calendar? And really, why? How cogent are the arguments against the old calendar? How is the calendar connected with our Christian spiritual life, and what is the significance of preserving our traditions in the modern world? Historian Pavel Kuznekov talks with our readers on this subject.
The discussion surrounding the Julian calendar has come up once again, although the question being asked is not: Why does the Russian Orthodox Church live according to this calendar?—since the answer is obvious, because this is our thousand-year tradition. Rather, the question is more like this: Why haven’t we changed to the calendar that the majority of people in the country are using, which the Union of Peoples’ Commissars called on February 8, 1918 the calendar of “cultured people”? The question boils down to basically, why do we follow tradition? The answer is obvious: Because in the Orthodox Church, tradition is important.
Even so, let’s look at the arguments usually presented in favor of “change” from the point of view of Church tradition, and the practical-everyday argument.
The scientific question—correcting the Pascalia?
The scientific argument goes like this: The Gregorian calendar more accurately describes astronomical manifestations; namely, it more accurately corresponds to the tropical year—the earth’s rotational period around the sun. And in order to institutionalize the reckoning of time, the calendar was introduced, first in Europe, by Gregory XIII. This began in the Catholic world and then spread to other countries.
But actually, Pope Gregory introduced the new calendar for a different reason. The main idea behind the Gregorian reform was a correction in the Paschalia. Scholars of the time, mainly Italians, found that the lapse given in the classic Julian year will in several tens of thousands of years lead to Pascha falling in autumn, and this would disrupt certain principles. A commission was created, and after fairly long discussion it came to the conclusion that a reform had to be made in precisely the Paschalia, and for the sake of the Paschalia the entire Julian year would need to be reformed. Changes were made, which shortened the year a little. The rule of determining the leap years was introduced: years divisible by four and 400 remained leap years, and those divisible by 100 remained non-leap years.
And what about the Paschalia for which the calendar was changed? The entire Orthodox world follows the traditional Alexandrian Paschalia, while the Roman Catholic world never did finish its work on its own Paschalia, and essentially its reckoning of the Easter date depends upon the same Alexandrian Pascalia to which are simply joined some corrective add-ons. Moreover, only very recently, almost just last year, the Catholics of the Holy Land changed directly over to our Orthodox Paschalia, returning to the tradition they had departed from in the sixteenth century—admitting by this that the main task in creating the Gregorian calendar is recognized as not having been satisfactorily completed. All the Orthodox Churches that for practical convenience changed to the “new style” calendar in the twentieth century have also acknowledged this fact. Formally, they have changed not to the Gregorian calendar but a New Julian calendar, but for the next several centuries it will still correspond to the Gregorian calendar. However, in changing over to this new calendar these Churches still observe the Paschalia according to the old tradition, the Julian calendar, because the Alexandrian Paschalia cannot be combined with the Gregorian calendar—such is its inner mathematical apparatus, you might say. It is calculated only on the Julian calendar.
Thus, the first argument falls away, because the main scientific problem motivating the creation of the Gregorian calendar—correcting the Paschalia—was not satisfactorily resolved.
The calendar of the liturgical year
Let’s now look at the second argument—from the point of view of Church tradition. But first let us take note: attempts to combine the Gregorian calendar with the Orthodox traditional Paschalia lead to a whole series of liturgical inconsistencies, for example, the disappearance of the Apostle’s fast. They disrupt the whole structure of Liturgical life that was worked out over centuries, and can’t produce anything more than ecclesiastical discord. Essentially, this is an inconsistent system, which, incidentally, the creators of the New Julian calendar have admitted. When in the 1920s the Greeks, and after them other Orthodox countries changed to this new style, the aim was the same: to develop a new Paschalia. But no one could accomplish this, because it is more than just a difficult task—it is an impossible task. This Paschalia just can’t be done. The only possibility is to do what the Catholics do: make regular, annual corrections using a complex mathematical formula. But the question inevitably arises: what for?
So, what is a calendar in Church tradition?
For Church tradition the calendar is a system that is utilitarian and not dogmatic. That is why the Churches that have changed to the new calendar—the Greek, Bulgarian, Romanian—are the same sister Churches, we have no dogmatic disagreements with them, and we continue our fraternal relationships them. But the calendar fulfills a very important function.
The Julian calendar itself was the invention of the pagan world, and has no relationship whatsoever to Christianity. As a matter of fact, it shouldn’t be particularly dear to us. But the thing is that that very Alexandrian Paschalia is based on this calendar, and this Paschalia has for centuries—from the late third to early fourth centuries—determined the structure not only of liturgical life, but the construct of the entire liturgical year. On this Paschalia a system was formed of Christian feasts, which began to be created from the fourth century and by the sixth century had taken on a more or less stable form—nearly what we have today. The calendar fulfills the role of organizing liturgical life, and it is in this sense that the Julian calendar has already grown and penetrated so firmly and durably into Church tradition that any attempt to extract it will inevitably lead to very serious temptations; to what the Greeks called “scandals”; that is, to what is offensive to people who are used to this liturgical tradition. And liturgical tradition means much more to the Orthodox Christian than just ritual.
In the example of Orthodox countries that introduced the calendar reform we can see how agonizing and difficult these processes were experienced by people of the Church, how often they were a cause of all manner of temptations, schisms, and so on. Opposition to the calendar can also be used as an excuse to justify schisms, although we understand that behind schisms there is always a certain pridefulness, an attempt to stand against the Church. And we of course condemn that. But as it is said, “Do not tempt these little ones”—one should not give an excuse to him who is looking for an excuse.
From the point of view of Church tradition, such a painful thing as a change of calendar is also, in the practical sense, not justified by anything. Therefore the idea that lay at the foundation of the Gregorian reforms, according to which Pascha can only be a spring holy day celebrated inalterably after the astronomical spring equinox, is based upon false premises. Nowhere in the Holy Scripture is there anything about the spring equinox, nor does it say anywhere in Holy Scripture that Pascha is a seasonal feast. The Jewish Pascha is, in fact, a seasonal holy day, connected with the agricultural cycle. But what is Christian Pascha? It is the remembrance of the Savior’s resurrection. It has no relationship to astronomical cycles or the rising of the moon and stars.
As for seasons—not only Orthodox but Catholic Christians in the southern hemisphere already celebrate Easter in autumn, and no one has ever been concerned about that including the current pope of Rome, who is, as we all know, from South America.
The argument at the root of the Gregorian reforms, as if an argument about natural sciences, is not only meaningless in Christian tradition, it even contradicts it. This is because as the new Pascha differs from the old Pascha in that it is no longer a feast connected with earthly life but a feast connected with the life of the age to come. It is a feast that clears the road for man to the life of the age to come, to the Kingdom of Heaven. This is a feast that is not of this world, and thus the movement of the stars or the natural cycles has absolutely no meaning for it at all.
In step with the West
The third argument is the practical convenience of the Gregorian calendar. It is the one most often presented today. After all, the Protestant countries that for so long had fought against this, that cursed the papal calendar, eventually changed over to it by force of this argument. The English and the Swedes were particularly stubborn; as we know, they held out all the way to the eighteenth century. Incidentally, they did not recognize any celebrations of New Year—they never had our “New Year” problem. The new year in England began on March 1, according to a very old Roman Christian tradition. Their change to the papal calendar was tied up exclusively with the demands of commerce: The dates of business contracts, production terms, and goods transportation had to be synchronized, because it is the merchants who are dependent upon the calendars of various countries. The ordinary person after all does not know what date it is today in China according to the Chinese calendar or in Persia according to the Solar Hijri. But to a merchant who travels here and there, this question means money. And commerce took the upper hand—it brought Europe to a unified calendar system according to which it now lives.
What happened in the Orthodox world? Here the situation is more tragic, because it wasn’t even commerce that decided the issue but banal politics; the Orthodox countries began changing over to the new style right at the time of the First World War and just after it. There was talk of synchronizing military supply. First Bulgaria changed, having been drawn into the German military block, and then, after the revolution in Russia; and once the other countries lost their main anchor in Russia they also changed. Russia was in this case an anchor of the Julian calendar tradition, inasmuch as it was a cultural field with which the others had to live synchronously. The Orthodox countries preferred to synchronize their calendars with the Russians, but when Russia itself changed to the new calendar, the majority of the other countries immediately changed to this Western European calendar, but this was done by the government and not the Church. The Churches held to the old calendar—in Bulgaria, Serbia, and, of course, Russia. Thus, from that moment on the splintering of the calendar tradition began. Greece was the exclusion. In Greece, which preserved longer than anywhere else (or at least tries to preserve a unity of political and ecclesiastical order), both secular and ecclesiastical life where changed to the new calendar at the same time in the 1920s—not to the Gregorian, but to the New Julian. They tried to do this with the maximum prestige, if we can say it that way, because they changed not to the Western European calendar but to the Orthodox calendar, only new. However, Mt. Athos never changed to the new calendar; the old calendar is upheld there.
And by far not all Orthodox Churches changed. The attempt to present the Greek’s decision (mainly, the decision of Greek reformists) as a pan-Orthodox decision was not successful. They deceived Patriarch Tikhon at the time: He was told that there had been a pan-Orthodox decision to change to the new style, and therefore he published his famous decree about how, for the sake of Church unity, the Russians also need to change. But as soon as Patriarch Tikhon learned that the Jerusalem Patriarch did not change, and that other Patriarchates are also unsure, he immediately withdrew that decree. He was more concerned about not losing ecclesiastical unity in the Orthodox world, and if the other Orthodox Churches had all agreed to change to the new calendar then it would have been wrong to show, as they say, Russian pridefulness. But that there was so much deceit surrounding this shows that the calendar question was not connected with purely practical aims. Of course, it was all mixed up with politics, because essentially talk was about reorienting towards European civilization as a whole—to Western, Euro-American civilization. And having accepted the calendar, the Orthodox world surrendered one of its outposts, which categorically differentiated, distinguished, and set it apart from the Western world.
The change to the Gregorian calendar was not a dogmatic problem. But this problem was nevertheless very important and essential. And it was rather acutely experienced in Russia.
The people of the Church joyfully, by the way, did not accept the calendar reform also because the separation of the secular from the spiritual that arose from this turned out to be very beneficial for the spiritual life of Russia in particular after the revolution. The people of the Church remained in the good and right world—in the world that was being destroyed by the government and society, but preserved in the Church. Incidentally, not one of the anti-bolshevik governments recognized the European calendar: all the documents of the White movement are dated using the old style—this was another form of isolation from bolshevism. And this as if parallel calendar life continued to exist to the end of the soviet regime, to the 1990s, as a conscious form of another way of organizing ecclesiastical life—an organization based on observing traditions in a nation that had placed rejection of all traditions at the cornerstone of its politics.
The situation changed when the government came to reason and began its return to traditional values and principles, but naturally no one has the strength nor the means to give up the new calendar, because this would be an expensive undertaking; and mainly, very inconvenient from the point of view of state interests. And at that time a process began, which of course cannot but put us on our guard: The Church gradually began to forget about the fact that its calendar is different. Dates in parentheses that showed the correct dates of feasts and events in Church life little-by-little started disappearing. A sort of hybrid calendar appeared that gave feast days new dates, thirteen days different from those of other Churches. Of course, this evoked some snickering and questions. And of course, this is not right, and not normal. It creates a certain ambiguous, false situation: We are acting as though we live according to the same calendar as everyone else, but for some reason inconsistencies come up regularly.
With Christ, or with the world?
The most well-known of these inconsistencies is the pre-Christmas New Year, around which there are now especially many various speculations. And here, of course, is a great field for all manner of insinuation. But the matter is quite simply resolved if, firstly, the New Year be shown on its proper date, and secondly, we take away the status it had during Soviet times. If in the Soviet block New Year became the main family celebration of the year, in the rest of the world Christmas had that status. The vacation days and school days off are centered around Christmas, along with gift giving, Christmas trees, and so on. The USSR in the 1930s wanted to serve up an old tradition with a new sauce—leave the tree with decorations but put a new, five-pointed star on top, presenting the tree as a sort of symbol but without any religious underpinning. Then Grandfather Frost and the Snowflake Queen were substituted for Santa Claus [who is a substitute for St. Nicholas.—O.C.]. The idea was to use religious traditions in order to overthrow them and deprive them of their meaning. And it worked. Now modern people of Russia often don’t know that this is a religious holiday.
The time has come to put everything in its proper place and return all the festivities around the New Year their original Christmas meaning. Then all the problems will disperse by themselves, and the civil New Year will be less noticeable—important enough, but at the same time only a preparation for the real, correct feast, which everyone is waiting for at this time. There is no tragedy in this, in fact just the opposite: This will stimulate Orthodox people to test themselves: Where are we, with the world or with tradition? After all, this conflict between the world and tradition is fundamental to Christianity: Christianity is a religion that stands against the world. It began with a stand against the Roman festivals. Christians were always accused of not rejoicing when all the pagans were rejoicing, of celebrating feasts that the pagans do not celebrate, of leading a life of their own.
And after all, this was one of the Lord’s main ideas: to make a person look at this world as at a temporary stop, to separate himself from worldly habits and celebrations; to make him depart from the illusion that worldly life is what we are living for.
Later, when Christianity became the state religion and traditional, a certain part of this now Christian habit became one of the problems of Christian consciousness. It is no accident that monasticism arose at that time. Monks seek that very stand against the world, while “everyday” Christianity to the contrary, loses it—it seeks to make Christianity convenient, habitual, comfortable; to make life what the pagans were accustomed to, what mankind in general is accustomed to.
But that is characteristic of us; nevertheless the Christian world has always retained this alienation. It is no accident that monks have always had a special status in Christianity. These were the only people who led a proper way of life. It is precisely for this reason that laypeople would often go to monasteries for the feasts—there they could sense the normal life. Everything else is worldly, but it is a certain palliative, a sort of transitional form between the old and the new man, which is inevitable, necessary—but not normal.
And by force of this attempt to make the calendar comfortable—so that we don’t have to fast on New Year’s day while everyone else is celebrating, so that we can travel without taking Church feast days into account, with inconsistencies and shifts—is all an attempt to make Christianity convenient, an attempt to make it a practical, comfortable religion that never causes any tension. But this is nothing other than a direct emasculation of the very essence of Christianity as a religion. And I consider it to be a great gift of God to be living in Russia, that it suddenly (beyond all expectation; after all, no one counted on it) discovered this additional means to be convinced of our own rootedness in a tradition like the Church calendar.
Loving the Church calendar
We preserve the Julian calendar through the Church. The state, which earlier followed it rejected it, but the Church did not. And by this the Church proclaimed itself to be a treasury of tradition. When it was earlier considered that the Tsar preserves tradition just as he does the Church itself, when the state showed itself to be the patron of the Church, the perception arose that the Church can’t do anything without the state; that it is helpless. Incidentally, many wrote about this helplessness. And there was such a factor. But now we have calendar support for Church witness—witness that tradition is not vanity; that the whole religious system and world view is not vanity. This is also an important point, and to disdain it and even worse to sacrifice it for the sake of practical convenience would be just that, and nothing other than proof of that very helplessness.
This would mean that the Church is in no condition to stand against the world, that it cannot withstand the pressure of comfort, the demand for convenience that makes itself known daily, hourly, even every minute. “How could it be that they over there have one day but we have another? We have to recalculate something… I can’t comprehend it.” Or “How is this? Everyone is celebrating and having a good time, but I am still fasting…” These anomalies can be resolved two ways: to perceive it as normal or to perceive it as abnormal and fight it. But here is the thing, that Christianity has always been in principle an anomalous religion—from the point of view of common sense, and from the point of view of this world. It is madness, as the apostle says, that truly there are things that don’t make sense. But that is why they are so precious to us.
It seems to me that this is one of the most important, most winning traits of our Christianity—our calendar. And those Churches that preserve it together with us feel this too. The problem is that this it is hard to make society understand this—but not impossible.
The main thing is to overcome two basic problems. The first is the loss of memory about the old style, when Christmas is celebrated on January 7, which doesn’t make sense. December 25 is the Nativity of Christ! And this date must figure in everywhere. But that the world lives according to a different calendar and for it, for that world, in England, France, and other places, this time has another date—well, that’s how this world is: It’s shifted. And this is one of the clearest signs, one of the most visible testimonies to the fact that it has shifted altogether—and that the world has shifted in relation to norms in all other senses, we know very well. The calendar inconsistency shows this plainly. Perhaps it is an illustration of apostasy that we can observe.
And of course, we have to love our calendar; and I consider that the priority dates should be those of the Church calendar. For convenience, of course, the secular date should also be shown—that’s normal and couldn’t be any other way. But the first date should be the Church calendar date, and no other.
And a second point: People do not understand the connection between the Paschalia and the calendar. They think that it is enough to change to the Gregorian calendar and all problems will fall away. But it turns out that our Paschalia is Julian, not Gregorian—but supporters of calendar reform are always silent about this. Because the task that was set in the 1920s by initiators of this reform—creating a new Orthodox Paschalia—was never done, although huge efforts were put into doing it. And sooner or later we will run up against this problem. But do we need it? These are the questions that come up in connection with discussions about the calendar.
Traditional calendars in other countries
Inconsistency between sacred calendars and civil calendars is characteristic of very many living religious traditions, including those of modern Judaism. In Israel, as we know, they have their own traditional—or to be more exact, renewed—Judaic calendar, based, it’s true, essentially not on the Biblical but more on Babylonian tradition, but one that has squarely entered into Jewish culture, first of all Talmudic. This calendar exists in Israel parallel to the civil Gregorian calendar, and each day has two dates. This has no effect whatsoever on the workings of secular institutions.
In Iran there is the Arabic calendar with a triple date: the European date, the Lunar Hijra, and the Solar Hijra—and it is not a tragedy. The Official calendar is the Solar Hijra. In Japan and China they have their own traditional Lunar calendars and although no one lives by them today they have never been discarded; and traditionally—by the people at least—they are used for all their holidays.