St. Benedict

Scott Neufeld

St. Benedict Russian Orthodox Church in Oklahoma City.

For most of America, Christmas was over nearly two weeks ago, but for almost 300 million Christians around the globe, Jan. 7 is Christmas day, and this number includes some Oklahomans.

Since before 1897, small groups of Oklahomans have been celebrating Christmas on Jan. 7. Some of the first Christians in Oklahoma to celebrate Christmas on this unique date, were “Lemkos,” people immigrating from Poland, Slovakia, Ukraine, and Hungary, who were recruited to work in the coal mines in Indian Territory (as Oklahoma was known before statehood). 

These hardy, pious, and devout people brought their deep faith with them, just as other immigrants of that time, and in quick order constructed a lovely church in Hartshorne.  

Their original church, was built in 1897, a white frame construction, Saints Cyril and Methodius Orthodox Church sat on the hill at Third and Modoc streets. This small building was only used for about 20 years. At its peak, some 500 people came to worship there, and in 1917 a larger building was constructed in which services are still held today. 1897 to 1917 – The Original Sts. Cyril and Methodius Orthodox Christian in Hartshorne.

 The new building was adorned with three silver “onion domes,” which are very common in Orthodox Christian architecture. This Oklahoma church may have been the last Orthodox Church, anywhere in the world, to receive the blessing of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, before he and his family were murdered, as well as funds from the Tsar for its construction.

Today, Oklahomans at St Benedict in Oklahoma City, and Saint Nino in Stillwater and Enid, as well as many individual Orthodox Christians scattered throughout Oklahoma, all celebrate Christmas on Jan. 7.

But we haven’t answered the question, why? So, let’s get to it!

To understand the reason for this unique dating of Christmas, we have to look at a little bit of Church history and go back in time to the year 1054 A.D, a full 500 years prior to the Protestant Reformation. 

At this time and for nearly one thousand years prior, five main bishops governed the Christian Church throughout the entire known world. 

A tale of five bishops

These five governing Apostolic “Sees” were Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, Constantinople, and Rome.

The Great Schism of 1054 saw the Apostolic Sees of Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria and Constantinople strongly disagree with the See of Rome over several issues, including the Pope’s claim to be the head of all the churches. 

The disagreement was so vigorous that a split occurred, one which exists to the present day. The See of Rome we know as the Roman Catholic Church, while the other four Sees together form the Orthodox Church, or as it is sometimes known, the Eastern Orthodox Church. 

The Orthodox Church became the dominant Christian Church in most Eastern European countries as well as Greece and Russia.

An inaccurate calendar?

In 1054, at the time of the Great Schism, all Churches everywhere used the “Julian” calendar which had been created under the reign of Julius Caesar. However, in 1582 the Roman Catholic Pope Gregory proposed a new calendar for his church.

Julius Caesar introduced his calendar in 45 BC and it was the official calendar in the known world for about 1,500 years, but then around 1560 an Italian astronomer, named Luigi Ghiraldi, contended that the Julian calendar was not quite accurate. 

He argued that the Julian calendar was in error by 11 minutes and 14 seconds, which when tallied up, amounts to one day for every 128 years, for a total of 13 days.  

In 1582, in order to correct the problem, the Roman Catholic Pope Gregory XIII abolished the “Old Julian” calendar and substituted the Ghiraldi system.  

The “new” system proposed by Ghiraldi is commonly known as the “Gregorian Calendar”. Because the new “Gregorian” calendar differed from the older Julian calendar by 13 days, Christmas would now be celebrated 13 days earlier, on the “new” Dec. 25.

Since the Orthodox Church had no connection to the Roman Catholic Church, it simply stayed on the “Old Julian” calendar.

The Gregorian calendar went on to be adopted by not only the Roman Catholic Church, but also by Western governments and even by the Protestant Reformers.  

Today, in Orthodox Christian countries, like Russia, Georgia, Ethiopia, Ukraine, Serbia, and Moldova, the governments and financial sectors are ordered using the Gregorian calendar, but the Orthodox Church continues using the older Julian calendar for all Church related affairs.

An interesting historical note for Americans is that the early American Colonies still operated on the “old” Julian calendar, until the “new Gregorian calendar” was adopted in 1752. Sept 2, 1752 was immediately followed by Sept. 14, 1752, in both England and in America. 

Dec. 25 is Actually Jan. 7?

“It seems confusing at first, but Christmas is actually celebrated on both calendars on the 25th of December,” said Father Matthew Floyd, priest at Saint Nino Orthodox Church in Stillwater.

“When we say that Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas on Jan. 7, what we really mean is that Dec. 25 on the Julian calendar falls on Jan. 7 on the Gregorian calendar. So strictly speaking, Christmas is still kept on Dec. 25 – which just happens to fall 13 days later on the Julian calendar.”

The date of Dec. 25 is also not a coincidence. It comes exactly 9 months, that is, a full term pregnancy, after the Feast of the Annunciation, which is on March 25. That feast commemorates the day that the Archangel Gabriel visited the Virgin Mary.  Since she gave birth to Jesus, Orthodox Christians refer to her as “Theotokos,” which means Mother of God.

Father Matthew went on to say that “the unique dating of Christmas does have its advantages. Many Americans feel concerned about the over commercialization of Christmas. Orthodox Christians in America do get to avoid this to some degree.

Most of us celebrate “Western Christmas” with our non-Orthodox extended families on Dec. 25. We open presents and watch football and the usual things, and then we get to look forward to a more overtly spiritual and quiet time, with an Orthodox Church service on Jan. 7.” 

Fasting before  Christmas?

The Orthodox observance of Christmas (technically known as The Feast of the Nativity in the Flesh of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ) contrasts considerably from Western customs.

Although Orthodox Christians also have a 40 day Advent season, it is meant to be a time of fasting, prayer and performing deeds of charity. The celebration and feasting begins after the Church service on Jan. 7.

In many Orthodox countries, like the Republic of Georgia, the faithful put candles in their windows on Christmas eve, to highlight the coming into the world of the Light of the World. Feasting goes on for 12 days, until Theophany, which commemorates Christ’s Baptism. In Orthodox countries, much of January is a time of celebration, feasting and family visits.

“Whether you celebrate Dec. 25 or 13 days later, it is still remarkable that more than 2,000 years after the birth of Jesus the world still pauses to acknowledge His Incarnation on this day.”