This is the Christmas that counts

Many Orthodox Christians, though not majority in U.S, hold on to January 7 as the real holiday

Today is Christmas for Viola Peifer and family, who celebrated last night with a traditional meal of bread and mushroom soup, and with straw scattered under the table as a reminder that Jesus was born among animals.

The North Side resident keeps the traditional Orthodox date of January 7 while also observing December 25 because her extended family of 97 people includes many who follow the Western calendar. But for her, it is today that counts. “On the seventh it is a command that they all come to church with me, and then we come home for Christmas food and for opening gifts,” she said of her three children, their spouses and her seven grandchildren.

No meat may be eaten Christmas Eve because of the fast, so it’s mushroom soup. They pass a cup of wine around the table and offer each other a Christmas blessing. But today there will be turkey, Orthodox Christmas, American style.

The difference in date stems from the adoption of the Gregorian Calendar, decreed by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582 to solve problems with the accuracy of the ancient Julian calendar. Orthodox Christians, who regarded popes as schismatic, did not begin to follow it until the 20th century, when the Greek and Middle Eastern Orthodox churches adopted it.

Although the majority of Orthodox worldwide celebrate Christmas today, most in the U.S. celebrated it December 25. But some are allowed to choose, including parishes in the American Carpatho-Russian Orthodox Diocese of Johnstown, to which Peifer belongs.

More than 20 years ago, St. Nicholas Orthodox Church in New Castle became one of the first in that diocese to move to December 25. It required a 95 percent vote of the congregation, because the issue could split parishes.

There were many reasons for the change, said the Rev. Richard Salley, pastor of St. Nicholas for 37 years. The most important was spiritual: Orthodox Advent, which includes December 25, is a time of strict fast, but many parishioners in mixed marriages were celebrating both dates. “They were breaking the Advent fasting season,” he said.

It was difficult for college students to spend Christmas with their families on January 7, which often meant they didn’t get to church at all, he said. The switch made it far easier for families to gather. “I think that in the near future, most of the churches will change,” he said.

Eastern Catholics, whose practices are nearly identical to the Orthodox, have mostly switched to December 25 in the U.S., said the Rev. Robert Oravetz, who is in charge of four Byzantine Catholic missions around Penn State University. The major exceptions are among Ukrainian Catholics, who have many new immigrants from Ukraine, which is still on the old calendar, he said.

He was 14 in 1955 when the Byzantine Catholic archbishop of Pittsburgh insisted on December 25. The push for the Western date among Eastern Catholics began after World War II, when men returned from overseas full of fervor for all things American. “They wanted two things in the churches: services in English and the so-called American calendar,” Father Oravetz said.

Language was easier to change, because understanding of Old Slavonic had declined and parishes could always hold a second service in that language, he said. But there was deep resistance to changing the calendar, which many felt was what made them distinct from “the Romans.” “When a congregation adopted the new calendar, I remember the accusations whispered that this is another parish that is going Roman,” he said.

But today, he said, the calendar is a non-issue among most Eastern Catholics. He believes the move to December 25 is good for Christian unity and would like to see Catholics adopt the Orthodox date for Easter, an idea that the late Pope John Paul II had favored.  “When you are celebrating on different dates, it allows non-Christians to be able to raise questions” about division, he said.

But the pastor at St. John the Baptist Orthodox Church in Marshall-Shadeland said his parishioners prefer the traditional date for spiritual reasons. Because all the commercial hoopla is past, the later date keeps the focus on Jesus’ birth.

“In the Orthodox church, Christmas is celebrated spiritually. You go to church, receive the sacraments and celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. Even though people go to church on December 25, that celebration has become more secularized,” said the Rev. John Brancho.

A few people in his parish have expressed interest in changing because it is hard to get off work on January 7, he said. He writes notes for children to show their school that they are taking a day off for a religious observance. But there is little generational difference over the preferred date, he said. “Some of the younger people want to keep the traditions of their family. I think it is part of the connection of the present with the past,” he said.

The greatest challenges come from mixed families, which is virtually all of them. Peifer counts many Eastern and Latin Catholics among her 97 relatives. They have found ways to accommodate everyone with regard to gift-giving. She gives and receives half her gifts on December 25 and the other half on January 7. But her children and grandchildren always make the effort to get off work and school to celebrate what she considers real Christmas. “We do it here, in my family, by the grace of God,” she said.