January 7 is, I learned when growing up in Winnipeg, “Ukrainian Christmas.” As a boy, I just accepted that Ukrainian people celebrated Christmas on a different day than my family did. At one point, I was taught that Ukrainian people observe Christmas Eve as the day the Three Magi arrived in Bethlehem to worship the Christ child. Which only led to more confusion—why did the holy family hang around in a stable for two weeks?
What’s the real reason why Ukrainian people, and hundreds of millions of others celebrate the day 13 days later than others? Let’s find out.
The calendar question
In 46 BC, Julius Caesar, Consul of Rome, decreed a new calendar so that the calendar solstices coincided with the actual solstices. This solar calendar set the length of the year as 365.25 days, so introduced leap years—every fourth year had an extra day. Now, we set that as February 29, every four years.
The problem was that this new calendar still wasn’t perfect. A solar year—the time it takes for the Earth to complete a revolution around the sun—is actually 365.2425 days. So the Julian calendar added one day to a year every 128 years. By the 1500s CE, equinoxes and solstices were observed 10 days after they happened.
In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII announced a new calendar with a more accurate number of days. The new rule for leap years is described best by the United States Naval Observatory:
Every year that is exactly divisible by four is a leap year, except for years that are exactly divisible by 100, but these centurial years are leap years if they are exactly divisible by 400. For example, the years 1700, 1800, and 1900 are not leap years, but the year 2000 is.
Gregory’s reform also jumped the calendar forward by 10 days. He went to bed on October 4, 1582 and woke up the next morning, October 15, 1582.
This was apparently a controversial move, and was not adopted everywhere at the same time. Philip II of Spain being a major ally—some say, the owner of the papacy at the time—the lands that he ruled adopted the new calendar immediately: Spain, Portugal, and much of Italy. As did the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. France followed in December.
Protestant countries resisted the change. Prussia took nearly 30 years to move to the Gregorian calendar. The British Empire took nearly two centuries, adopting it in 1752.
How Christmas got 13 days out
The Russian Empire never adopted the Gregorian calendar. It was only 1918, after the Russian Revolution, that Russia and the countries it controlled accepted the change. By this time, the difference between the two calendars was 13 days.
As emigration increased, people took their religions and traditions with them. Large numbers of Orthodox Christian Ukrainians arrived in North America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries—before their church moved to the new calendar. To them, January 7 was December 25. Like some people believe ABBA is rock’n’roll.
Change is coming
The Ukrainian state, society and church have accepted the possibility of moving Christmas observances to December 25. In 2020, head of Ukrainian Orthodox Church, Metropolitan Epiphanius, stated that the observance could be moved back 13 days, along with all other Church holidays and observances. It would take time and education, but it could be done.
Then this past December, 2022, Ukrainian Orthodox churches began to celebrate Christmas on December 25. This also has political ramifications, as many Ukrainians have stated that the move reflects a desire to move away from Russian associations and closer to Western Europe.
Merging Ukrainian Christmas with “western” Christmas poses a challenge that some may not have thought about.
In my house, we celebrate both Christmases. On December 25, we open presents and share a big meal with family and friends. We leave all the decorations up for another two weeks, and then celebrate Ukrainian Christmas Eve with a traditional Ukrainian meal: holuptsi, different types of perohe, kutia, kolach and more.
Now, when December 25 becomes December 25, how will we accommodate the combination of traditions? Will we eat turkey with perohe? Kutia and fruitcake? Half of each, or twice as much?
What’s your advice? We have a year (less two weeks) to work it out.