By Harriet Alexander, and Harriet Line. Graphic by Rory Norton
While in the UK, USA and much of the world Christmas Day is December 25, in a surprisingly-high number of countries celebrate Christmas on January 7.
This is because some countries use a different calendar.
In the West we use the Gregorian calendar, originally proposed by Pope Gregory in 1582.
But in much of the former Soviet bloc and Middle East they remain on the Julian calendar, created under the reign of Julius Caesar in 45 BC.
Germany didn’t accepted the Gregorian calendar until 1775, while Bulgaria didn’t do so until 1917.
And nowadays most countries use the Gregorian calendar, but retain the Julian one for their traditional holidays. There are 13 days in difference between the two calendars.
“December 25 on the Julian calendar actually falls on January 7 on the Gregorian calendar,” said Archimandrite Christopher Calin, dean of the Russian Orthodox Cathedral of the Holy Virgin Protection.
“So strictly speaking, Christmas is still kept on December 25 – which just happens to fall 13 days later on the Julian calendar.”
Some of the same Christmas traditions are shared among most countries which observe the Julian calendar.
Christmas is preceded with a period of fasting, where meat is off cut out of the diet for 40 days. A manger scene is often recreated, sometimes with hay being brought into the house to decorate the rooms. Christmas Eve is marked with a special dinner, which frequently features 12 dishes to represent the 12 apostles. And feasting is sumptuous on Christmas Day itself, with prized delicacies from that particular country.
A Christmas service at Christ the Saviour cathedral in Moscow, Russia (EPA)
But other traditions are unique to that particular nation.
In Ethiopia, people dress in white to attend church services and afterwards play sporting tournaments.
And in Serbia, families set out on Christmas Eve to find an oak branch in the forest (or in their market, in urban areas) to decorate their homes.
Orthodox Christians attend a Christmas Mass in Tbilisi, Georgia (AFP)
When the head of household finds a suitable tree, he stands in front of it facing east. After throwing grain at the tree, he greets it with the words “Good morning and happy Christmas Eve to you”, makes the Sign of the Cross, says a prayer, and kisses the tree. He may also explain to the oak why it will be cut: “I have come to you to take to my home, to be my faithful helper to every progress and improvement, in the house, in the pen, in the field, and in every place.”
He then cuts it slantwise on its eastern side, using an axe. The tree should fall to the east, unhindered by surrounding trees. It must not be left half-cut, as then it will curse the house of the man. In some regions, if the tree is not cut down after the third blow of the axe, then it must be pulled and twisted until its trunk breaks.
Christmas Traditions in Ethiopia
Ethiopia is one of the oldest nations in Africa. It still follows the ancient Julian calendar, so Ethiopians celebrate Christmas on January 7. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church’s celebration of Christ’s birth is called Ganna. It is a day when families attend church.
The day before Ganna, people fast all day. The next morning at dawn, everyone dresses in white. Most Ethiopians don a traditional shamma, a thin, white cotton wrap with brightly colored stripes across the ends. The shamma is worn somewhat like a toga. Urban Ethiopians might put on white Western garb. Then everyone goes to the early mass at four o’clock in the morning. In a celebration that takes place several days later, the priests will dress in turbans and red and white robes as they carry beautifully embroidered fringed umbrellas.
Most Ethiopians who live outside the modern capital city, Addis Ababa, live in round mud-plastered houses with cone-shaped roofs of thatched straw. In areas where stone is plentiful, the houses may be rectangular stone houses. The churches in Ethiopia echo the shape of the houses. In many parts of the country there are ancient churches carved out of solid volcanic rock. Modern churches are built in three concentric circles.
In a modern church, the choir assembles in the outer circle. Each person entering the church is given a candle. The congregation walks around the church three times in a solemn procession, holding the flickering candles. Then they gather in the second circle to stand throughout the long mass, with the men and boys separated from the women and girls. The center circle is the holiest space in the church, where the priest serves Holy Communion.
Around the time of Ganna, the men and boys play a game that is also called ganna. It is somewhat like hockey, played with a curved stick and a round wooden ball.
The foods enjoyed during the Christmas season include wat, a thick, spicy stew of meat, vegetables, and sometimes eggs as well. The wat is served from a beautifully decorated watertight basket onto a “plate” of injera, which is flat sourdough bread. Pieces of injera are used as an edible spoon to scoop up the wat.
Twelve days after Ganna, on January 19, Ethiopians begin the three-day celebration called Timkat, which commemorates the baptism of Christ. The children walk to church services in a procession. They wear the crowns and robes of the church youth groups they belong to. The grown-ups wear the shamma. The priests will now wear their red and white robes and carry embroidered fringed umbrellas.
The music of Ethiopian instruments makes the Timkat procession a very festive event. The sistrum is a percussion instrument with tinkling metal disks. A long, T-shaped prayer stick called a makamiya taps out the walking beat and also serves as a support for the priest during the long church service that follows. Church officials called dabtaras study hard to learn the musical chants, melekets, for the ceremony.
Ethiopian men play another sport called yeferas guks. They ride on horseback and throw ceremonial lances at each other.
Ganna and Timkat are not occasions for giving gifts in Ethiopia. If a child receives any gift at all, it is usually a small gift of clothing. Religious observances, feasting, and games are the focus of the season.
In France, meanwhile, children prepare for Christmas by leaving their shoes by the hearth so Pere Noel, or Father Christmas, will fill them with gifts. Keep reading to learn more about Christmas traditions in France.