I need to begin by saying that in the most important sense, the right Christmas is when our Church community calls us together to celebrate it. We should never imagine that seeking to be correct in some necessary way means that we should dismiss everything or everyone else. Our interior spiritual life is always what matters most, and our shared experience of life in Christ. But that does not mean that we should not ask questions and be concerned to correct things that are falling into confusion.
If we are asking about the “right Christmas”, we should not ever mean that any other celebration is the “wrong Christmas”. But we can ask which day represents the original date in the cycle of the year, and we can ask why confusion and complication has entered into our calculations.
In the ancient times it was not always clear how long the year should be. Many societies use the moon as a means of calculating time because it appeared in the same shape, a full moon, or a new moon for instance, every 30 days or so. But having 12 cycles of the moon made only 360 days, and the ancient people realised that over a few years things started shifting out of phase with the universe. The shortest day, perhaps a time of lighting fires in the Winter to encourage the light to return to the world, happened at the wrong time, because after 360 days from the last festival it wasn’t the shortest day at all, that was going to happen in 5 more days time, and after two years the shortest day was now 10 days after the festival. It became clear that the year was not 360 days long, but that the universe was running on a slightly longer cycle.
So the early people realised that it was about 365 or 366 days between the things in the skies happening again, the shortest day, the longest day, and the days where the day and night were the same. Many people coped with these additional necessary days by adding extra days in a small month or to different months of the year. The Egyptian calendar followed this model and has 12 months of 30 days, and a small month to accommodate the extra days necessary. But even with this correction, things were not quite accurate and the days still drifted away from things happening in the universe. This is because the year, we now know, is not 365 days long, but is about 365.24 days long. So if the year was 365 days long then every four years or so the festivals and activities of people based on the calendar would be 1 whole day wrong according to the universe. The shortest day in the Winter, returning to that example, would be 1 day after the festival, and this difference would increase about 1 day every four years. But it clearly was not 366 days long either, because this would mean that festivals were taking place after the universe. So the shortest day would happen one day before the festival, and the two days and so on.
It was realised that what was necessary was an additional day which soaked up this difference. In some societies this was added when it seemed required. Either the religious or civil authorities would announce extra days to bring the calendar back into line with the universe, so that, for instance, a festival on the shortest day actually took place on the shortest day.
In Rome, this process of adding extra days belonged to the civil authorities, and they realised that they could retain their governmental positions longer by extending the year, since they were elected for a year of authority and influence. This led to corruption of the calendar, since they could keep putting off the end of one year by adding more days. Julius Caesar acted to correct this situation and also to bring about a rule for the year that did not depend on the personal intervention of civil authorities.
In a simple explanation, he introduced a fixed leap year every four years which would add one extra day, so that the length of the year kept close track with the actual universe. This meant that every time the festivals of the year might start drifting away from the reality of the universe, the leap day being added would bring it back to connect the festivals, such as for the shortest day, with the actual shortest day in reality. At the time he introduced his rules the Roman year had to be changed all at once because the calendar had drifted so far from reality that it was a about a whole month disconnected from reality. This would be like celebrating the shortest day of the year in the middle of January instead of December 21st when it actually takes place.
His intention was for his calendar calculation to match the reality of the universe as closely as possible. By introducing a year of a length of 365.25 days he was very close. But the year is not 365.25 days in length, and his improvement had a built-in error. Over the length of even two lifetimes this difference was not so noticeable, but it became apparent very early. Here is the problem. If a leap day is added every 4 years then over the course of 400 years 3 more days are added than are required. And over the course of 2000 years, 13 days have been added more than were required.
This means that a Roman citizen today, using the much improved calculation developed by Julius Caesar, if he celebrated the shortest day of the year on his calendar would be doing so 13 days later than reality, because leap days had been added when they were not necessary over the centuries. This also means that the Spring Equinox according to this Roman citizen’s diary, would not happen according to the reality of the universe but would also happen 13 days later. Every year would be 13 days out of synchronisation with the reality of the universe because the pagan Roman Emperor Julius Caesar, when introducing an improvement to the pagan Roman calendar of his time, left a small adjustment which we was not aware of, but which would create a disconnect with reality over the course of time.
The Egyptian calendar had its own months of 30 days, and an additional small month to provide the extra days needed each year. This calendar also adopted the same method of calculation as Julius Caesar. It provided 365 days every year, and 366 every fourth year, and so this also introduced the same error over the longer scale.
When the Christian Church came to develop a cycle of festivals and seasons it adopted the civil calendar in use around the Empire. This was not because Julius Caesar was a saint, but because his calendar worked. The Spring Equinox, when the day and night were equal, happened on the right time every year, at least for the first centuries. The festivals of the Lord Jesus, of the saints and martyrs, were added, and these happened at the same time each year according to the calendar, and in synchronisation with the universe. It was chosen because it seemed to work and not because it was special or had any theological aspect at all, beyond representing the reality of the universe which God had created.
Even in the early centuries it became clear that things in the calendar were not happening at the time expected, because slowly more and more days were being added to the calendar and there were three too many leap years in every 400 years. This is not a new observation. The great Orthodox scholar, Bede, in the 8th century estimated that the calendar had added 3 roo many days already. Eventually, by the 16th century, the calendar created by Julius Caesar was 10 days different to the actual universe. The Spring Equinox took place, but the calendar now said March 21st was ten days later. The shortest day of the year, 21st December, was now happening 10 days after it actually took place. The connection between the real world and the calendar on a piece of paper had been lost, even though it was a connection that Julius Caesar intended, and that the early Church relied on.
The Roman authorities realised that by simply changing the rule about leap years and bringing the calendar back into line once and for all, as Julius Caesar had done, then the paper calendar would match the actual reality of the universe again and would not drift out of synchronisation. All that was required was that instead of having a leap year every four years, instead, on the occasions when it was a century – 1600, 1700, 1800 etc – there would only be a leap year if the year could be divide by 400. Therefore 2000 was a leap year, but 2100 will not be. There was also a need to change the paper calendar once so that March 21st, for instance, was actually at the time of the Spring Equinox. The Romans achieved this by simply jumping from the Julian calendar day Thursday, 4 October 1582 to the first day of the Gregorian calendar, Friday, 15 October 1582. Friday followed Thursday as expected, but by correcting those 10 days error which had accumulated the calendar now matched that which had been created by Julius Caesar and used by the early Christians.
There was a limited adoption of this correction. The calendar stayed exactly the same of course. All of the feasts were on the same date, but the date now matched the actual reality of the universe. Christmas actually took place on the 25th December, 4 days after the shortest day, instead of drifting further and further away. This correction was adopted by Rome in 1582, and at the same time by Spain, Portugal, France, Poland, Italy, Catholic Low Countries, and Luxemburg. Great Britain did not adopt it until 1752, by which time the error was 11 days. Now the error is 13 days.
The Eastern Churches did not adopt this correction, for a variety of reasons, mostly to do with hostility to anything seen as Western. In the 20th century some of the Orthodox Churches began to adopt the correction, but continued to use the old method, with its built-in astronomical error, to calculate Easter, for the sake of unity. Some of the Orthodox Churches had adopted the correction even for the calculation of Easter, such as the Orthodox Church of Finland, the Armenian Orthodox Church, and the Indian Orthodox Church.
The difference in date essentially comes down to whether or not the things we say are happening according to a paper calendar should actually be happening in the universe around us. This especially concerns the Spring Equinox which is used for calculating Easter. The early church expected that when they calculated Easter it would be in relation to the actual state of the universe, and so the Spring Equinox being used would certainly be approximately happening at that time. But it also applies to the feast of the Nativity, which was intended to take place just after the shortest day of the year, and not be two and a half weeks away and moving further and further as time progresses. This is why the correction was made. It did not change a single feast or fast, that is not what the correction meant, and to say the calendar is in error is not to speak of the cycle of feast and fasts at all, but it is to say that what we are doing has lost a connection with the reality of the universe and this is not what the early Church expected or intended.
There was no celebration of the birth of Christ in the earliest centuries, though some scholars investigated when this might have taken place. The first established feast was of the Epiphany, which included some aspect of the birth of Christ, together with his baptism, and which took place on the 6th January. It was between 427 and 433 A.D. that the celebration of the birth of Christ on the 29th Khiahk, which was the 25th December, became established in Alexandria.
At the end of the fourth century, Ephraim the Syrian, provides evidence that the birth of Christ was still being celebrated with the Epiphany 13 days after the Winter solstice, the shortest day, on the 6th January. But by 380 A.D. the writings of St Gregory Nyssa show that the seperate feast of the Nativity was being celebrated on the 25th December. At the same time, in Jerusalem, the combined feast was still celebrated on January 6th, but in 411 A.D. Jerome, living in Palestine, complained that the birth of Christ was still being celebrated at Epiphany.
In 386 A.D. St John Chrysostom preached about the feast of the Nativity on the 25th December, which he said had been introduced by some people into Antioch ten years before. He said that it had already been celebrated in Rome for a long time, and that, as far as he was aware, in Rome there were still the census records showing that Christ had been born on the 25th December.
St Gregory Nazianzen introduced the feast to Constantinople on the 25th December in 380 A.D. But when he left Constantinople a year or so later the feast was neglected. It seems to have been reintroduced to Constantinople by St John Chrysostom at the end of the fourth century in about 399 A.D. All were agreed that it was a feast first kept in the West, where it became very popular, and was first established in Rome.
In the Philocalian Calendar of 355 A.D. the civil calendar has an entry for “Natalis Invicti”, while in the list of martyrs and saints commemorated in Rome is the entry “VIII kal. ian. natus Christus in Betleem Iudeæ”. Another entry in the same compilation says “XPC natus est VIII Kal. ian. d. ven. luna XV”. All of these point to the celebration of the birth of Christ on the 25th December in Rome by 355 A.D. The 25th December had been the Winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. It may well have had some pagan and cultural significance which the early Roman Church gave a Christian interpretation. It is also the case that some Christians had identified the Annunciation and Conception of Christ on March 25th, the Spring Equinox in the ancient times, so that his birth after 9 months was on the 25th December. But it was certainly and deliberately associated with the Winter solstice, an astronomical event that was intended to be calculated on the same day each year.
What can we say? It is that the Feast of the Nativity was introduced in the 4th century in Rome, and that it was intended to be celebrated on the established date of the Winter solstice, which had been the 25th December. Even by the time of its popular introduction in the East the Julian calendar had introduced error. The Winter solstice was on the 21st, because of the additional leap days which the Julian calendar had incorrectly added. It was intended to be a Winter feast celebrated at the time when the days began to lengthen, just as Christ had come into the world as Light and Life.
The error in the Julian calendar leads to all of the feasts moving away from the actual date when they were intended. The Feast of the Nativity was intended to be kept at the Winter solstice. If it is kept two or three weeks after the solstice, or a month or more, then this is not what was intended. It is not “traditional” at all. When the Julian calendar was corrected and fixed it was set back to the time of the Council of Nicaea, when the Spring Equinox was expected to be on the 21st March. It could have been corrected further back to match the reality when Julius Caesar himself introduced the calendar before the time of Christ. But it was thought that restoring it to the time of Nicaea when the Spring Equinox was determined to be the 21st March would restore the necessary order and relation to the created world.
In just 100 years after Julius Caesar introduced his calendar it had added one day too many. Now it has added 13 days too many just from the time of the Council of Nicaea. Now our celebration of Christmas is 16 days too late after the Winter solstice and 13 days too late after the time it was celebrated when it was introduced. It is not even the case that the 7th January is a traditional date for keeping the feast. Before 1900 it was kept on the 6th January. Before 1800 it was kept on the 6th January. Before 1700 it was kept on the 5th January. After 2100 it will be kept on the 8th January, and after 2200 it will be kept on the 9th January, moving further and further away from the astronomical event, the shortest day, which it was supposed to co-incide with. Eventually it will take place on the longest day, in the middle of Summer, when it will represent the complete opposite of what was intended, which is the victory of the light of God over all darkness.
What needs to be done? It is very simple and almost invisible. It does not affect our weekly celebrations at all. Just once, we need to remove the 13 extra and unnecessary days we have added. In a quiet time during the year we would go from the 1st of a month to the 14th of the same month. We would keep all the annual commemorations of the saints of those days together just that once. This would mean that the 29th Khiahk would return to the 25th December, where it belongs, but all the other feasts would also be automatically corrected and would not change at all in relations to each other, nor would the fasts change in any way, but would be kept on the days that were set when they were introduced.
It is also necessary to stop the calendar adding extra unnecessary days again. All this requires is that in one way or another, there are several possibilities, leap days are not added when it is a century such as 2100, 2200 etc unless the year is divided by 400, or unless some other simple rule applies. This means that over a very long period the calendar becomes very accurate. Indeed eliminating the unnecessary extra days means that it will not be until another 3500 years that an extra day will be required, and the year will be accurate to just 26 seconds.
This is not complicated. It is not against the Fathers since they intended to follow an accurate calendar. It is not against our tradition since our use of an incorrect calendar means that all the feasts keep moving every 100 years. It resets the calendar back to the time of the Council of Nicaea and Christmas takes place on the day it was intended. Just two simple corrections. Lose the additional days, and change the rule for some leap days.
Without this change we do not become more traditional, but less traditional. Our Fathers kept the feast of the Nativity on the 25th December and intended it to be kept on the 25th December. If our own calendar means that the 29th Khiahk is no longer the 25th December then our own calendar need to be corrected. The Fathers never intended that those who insist on the 29th Khiahk should eventually celebrate the Winter festival in the middle of Summer. This simple correction in fact makes the 29th Khiahk to take place on 25th December as always intended and brings about a unity between Christians now and with those in the past.