In Russia Christmas is celebrated on the 7th of January. The reason for this is the difference between the Julian and Gregorian calendars. While most of Western European countries implemented the change to the Gregorian calendar in the 16th century, Russia continued to follow the Julian calendar until 1918. Before then, Christmas was celebrated in December, followed by the New Year. In 1918 the new Soviet government, in an attempt of secularization of the society, implemented the change of calendars, stating that January 31st of that year was to be followed by February 14th. Russian Orthodox Church, however, after a very brief period of acceptance of the Gregorian calendar, rejected it and, like a few other Christian Orthodox Churches, continues to follow the Julian calendar.
Some trifle change in the calendar should mean nothing for a true believer, and I’m sure, it does not for many Russian Orthodox people. Christmas was not a state holiday during the Soviet times. It returned as an official holiday in 1991. Although Christmas’ significance is overshadowed by the preceding festivities of the secular New Year the ideals of people have changed, and today many celebrate Christmas.
In Tula many people go to church on Christmas Eve. Not as many as at Easter, but many attend Christmas service, which starts at 11 pm. Usually, the service ends past two in the morning. Many go to church with their young children. When people return home, those who observed Lent celebrate the Holiday by drinking a glass of wine with a light snack. Some don’t attend the church, but watch live broadcasting of Christmas service from Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow.
Nobody, I believe, writes better about Russian Christmas or, in fact, other religious holidays in Russia, as Ivan Sergeevich Shmelev. He immigrated from Russia soon after the revolution. His recollections of pre-revolutionary life in Moscow are unbelievably poetic, probably in part because his stories are those of his childhood.
Today, walking with my son, I overheard two young men arguing. The younger one was asking the other to help some Alex, who did not, as I gathered, have any friends or relatives.
“But if he had anybody, he would’ve gone to them”, the younger man was saying. “You have to help him!”
“Are you saying,” the older man responded, “that we should let Alex to stay with us? Just because he doesn’t have anyone to go to?”
The weather was marvelous, the night was quiet and a light snow was falling. I came home and reread Shmelev’s recollection of the Christmas service:
“Thy Nativity, O Christ our God, has shone to the world the light of wisdom…
And it seems for some reason, that that very old sacred tune … always existed. And will exist, always.”