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Did you know there’s a Christmas in January?


Photo by russavia/Wikimedia licensed CC BY 2.0

Christmas may have come and gone for some, but many people and communities around the world are celebrating the holiday in January.

Celebrations this year may be a little different with social distancing and the wearing of masks. But let's find out more about Orthodox Christmas Day and how it's traditionally celebrated.

When is it celebrated?

Coptic Christians from Ethiopia celebrating Christmas

Orthodox Christian priests from Ethiopia. (Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP via Getty Images)

Many Orthodox Christians around the world celebrate Christmas Day on or near January 7. This is because their churches use a different calendar to figure out when their holidays are.

Isn't there just one calendar?

regular calendar showing Christmas and Julian calendar showing Christmas

(Katsiaryna Sharamet/123RF)

Sort of. In 45 BC, Julius Caesar of Rome created the Julian calendar. According to this calendar, Christmas falls 13 days after the “other” Christmas that takes place on December 25.

But they both celebrate the exact same thing. Orthodox Christians still use this calendar today for religious holidays.

For countries like Egypt, Greece, Russia and Ukraine, Orthodox Christmas Day is a public holiday. While it’s not a holiday in Canada, many Orthodox Christians throughout the country also celebrate the day.

How is it celebrated?

Orthodox Christmas mass in a church in St. Petersburg, Russia

Russian Orthodox priests during a procession in Kyiv. (Mladen Antonov/AFP via Getty Images)

The holiday is celebrated with many of the same symbols as those used for December 25, such as Christmas trees, wreaths and gifts.

But this holiday is also a special time of prayer and reflection. Many people celebrate over three days. On Christmas Eve morning, a special church service is held and many Orthodox Christians fast, which means they do not eat.

Alilo Christmas procession in Tbilisi, Georgia

Alilo Christmas procession in Tbilisi, Georgia. (Paara Vardanashvili/Wikimedia/CC BY 2.0)

In some countries, they enjoy a special dinner called the Holy Night Supper that features a 12-course meal of vegetarian dishes.

On Christmas Day, everyone returns to church before spending the day exchanging gifts, feasting and enjoying time with family and friends.

What special foods are enjoyed?

Bowl of red borscht with sour cream

Red borscht with sour cream. (Photo by liz west licensed CC BY 2.0)

Many Orthodox Christians don’t eat meat during the Christmas season. The 12 meat-free dishes in their Christmas Eve feast represent each of the 12 apostles.

Some dishes may differ from country to country, but many of them are similar such as herring, sauerkraut (cabbage), red borscht (beet soup), perogies (boiled or deep-fried dumplings) and dried fruit compote.

How is the Christmas table set?

A wheat sheaf called a didukh

Photo by Janbies/Wikimedia licensed CC BY-SA 4.0 

A white or embroidered tablecloth is usually used for the Christmas Eve dinner. It symbolizes the cloth that the baby Jesus was wrapped in.

Straw may be used to decorate the table to remember the stable where Jesus was born. And candles often light up the meal and represent the end of fasting from food.

Some Orthodox Christians also set extra places at the table for the spirits of those family members who have passed on.

In the corner of the room, you might find a sheaf of grain called a didukh (say “dee-dooh”) to symbolize a good harvest. The meal traditionally begins after the first star appears in the night sky.

What are some of the holiday traditions?

Orthodox Christmas carolers

Photo by Hrzoriana/Wikimedia licensed CC BY 3.0 

After dinner on Christmas Eve, some families give small treats to their neighbours, like cookies, candy and chocolate.

And in many Orthodox countries, such as Belarus, it’s a tradition to go from house to house singing koliadky (say “koh-lyad-KYH”) — or carols — and dancing for your neighbours. They will give food to their visitors to thank them for the entertainment.

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