Western Christmas in an Orthodox Land
The New Testament does not give an exact date for the birth of Jesus, and it was not until the fifth century that a date for the feast was indicated. In 431, the Third Ecumenical Council agreed to celebrate Christmas on 25 December. Evil tongues say the first Christian clergy set this date to fight pagan practices that were very popular in ancient Rome. Indeed, at that time, the people celebrated the heathen Saturnalia, a merry feast commemorating the dedication of the temple of Saturn, the god of agriculture, fertility, and time.
A difference between the Gregorian and the Julian calendar systems also made it unclear when to celebrate Christmas, a spokesman for the Moscow Patriarchate, Fr Sergei Zvonaryov said in an interview with the Voice of Russia. "The difference in the dates for the celebration of Christmas is connected with what calendar is used [for the determination of the fixed feasts], there is the Julian calendar, which is used by most Orthodox Christians, and there is the Gregorian calendar, which is used by the Western Churches and by a minority of Orthodox Christians. There is a 13-day difference between these two calendars. This is the reason why the Gregorian calendar marks Christmas on 25 December and the Julian calendar celebrates it on 7 January.
In Russia, Western Christmas is a quiet family holiday. After solemn mass at church, as a rule, believers go home to lay a festive table. When the first star appears in the sky, the Nativity Fast is over, and people are welcome to eat whatever they will. The table is usually laid with a white cloth and is decorated with fir-tree branches. A separate place at the table is meant for an unexpected guest. It is believed that unexpected guests on Christmas night are sent by Christ. As a rule, in the centre of the table there is a small pillow spread with special Christmas wafers, and each member of the family eats a piece of it, whilst others give their Christmas wishes to a person as they break a piece off the wafer. The rite is finished by a joint recitation of the prayer, 'Our Father'.
There is a beautiful custom arising in modern Russia, for, today, the Orthodox clergy take pains to greet the followers of the Western confessions with Christmas good-wishes on 25 December. We have common values and Christianity is our common faith. That is why we always greet other Christians when they celebrate Christmas and are glad to see them enjoying their holidays. Indeed, we are all Christians, and Christmas is a very significant time for all of us since it emphasizes the importance of the history of salvation of mankind, which occurred here on earth due to the birth of Jesus Christ".
- Voice of Russia World Service, 24th December 2008