When Traditions End: On the Changing Date of Christmas and Ukrainian Identity
I first heard the rumor’s confirmation as I was heading out the church door. The cantor was saying goodbye to me and added with a half-smile that change was inevitable. The Julian calendar was bound to fall behind the Gregorian calendar, he said, so much that Christmas according to the two calendars eventually would be celebrated hundreds of days apart, instead of the current difference of thirteen days. I knew then that the rumor was true. Parishioners and priests had whispered for years that the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, the largest sui iuris Eastern-rite church in communion with Rome, would soon be switching from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar. Christmas would now be celebrated on December 25 rather than January 7, with the solemn night of Christmas Eve falling on December 24 rather than January 6.
When Pope Gregory XIII issued his eponymous calendrical reform on February 24, 1582 CE, he added ten days to the calendar first devised by Julius Caesar around 45 BCE to bring the calendar closer to the solar year. Over the centuries, calculating by less accurate Julian Calendar has resulted in a current difference of thirteen days between the two. The Julian calendar needed correction, so why not simply adapt the Gregorian Calendar now, the cantor had told me, and have done with it? It would have to be done eventually. My husband responded with an equal half-smile that if we just waited long enough the dates of Christmas in the Julian and Gregorian calendars eventually would sync up again. I was not feeling so jokey, but I could not at first identify what my feelings were when the calendrical change was announced last February, even though the hierarchs of the Ukrainian Catholic Church agreed (for now) only to change calendars for immoveable feasts (that is, feasts like Christmas rather than Easter), beginning on September 1, 2023. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Canada has also announced that they are changing their dating of Christmas. As a result, my Ukrainian-Canadian friends, family and I find ourselves celebrating Christmas on December 25 this year, for the first time in our lives.