I don’t know about you, but after December 25th comes and goes, the remaining time between then and Orthodox Christmas January 7th doesn’t feel as much like the Christmas season, because most of the world has stopped celebrating it as such. The lights begin to come down, the movies and the songs revert back to normal, and everything else just reminds us Orthodox that we celebrate Christmas on a different day. And so, it is natural that around this time of year many of us begin to think about the Christmas date and whether we should be celebrating it all together at the same time. This idea particularly made waves when Pope Tawadros II of the Coptic Church discussed it with a congregation in Canada when he visited back in September, 2014. And the reaction to this was very heated, with many alarmed and even angered by such a suggestion, while others absolutely loving it.
Here is what I say to everyone: Let’s not just change the Christmas date, but let’s adjust the entire Coptic calendar!
Why the difference?
Many a time has this question been asked, and many a time this has been answered. It comes down to astronomy and math. People make this so much more than it is—they make this about Faith and Tradition, when all the difference has to do with is getting the MATH and ASTRONOMY right. After all, calendars were implemented based on those two pillars, and the attempt was made to make the calendar accurate; when inaccuracy is discovered, the original intention for accuracy merits a calendar change.
About 40 years before Christ was manifested in the flesh, emperor Julius Caesar directed there to be an accurate calendar created. Based on knowledge of astronomy and math at the time, that calendar (as does the ancient Egyptian calendar which the Copts used) assumed the year was 365.25 days long (365 days for three years, with a leap year having 366).
The problem is, and what Pope Gregory XIII of Rome realized some 1500 years later, is that the year is actually slightly shorter: 365.242199. Seems small, but after a long time, the difference adds up. In fact, after his scientists checked astronomicaly and mathematically (not based on Faith or Tradition) that the calendar was inaccurate, they realized they were off by 10 days from what the day should be.
Initially, many countries, and most of the Orthodox Christian world, refused to comply with the new dating right away. The Copts are no exception, and today the difference has grown to 13 days. If you check the difference between December 25th and January 7th, you’ll notice that is exactly the number of days apart they are.
Many Orthodox have already re-calibrated their calendars
Many may not realize that the Eastern Orthodox created a New Revised Julian Calendar, proposed for adoption in a synod held in Constantinople in May 1923. How would they deal with the 13-day discrepancy ? On October 1 of the Julian Calendar, they would declare that to actually be October 14th of the New Revised Julian Calendar, and then life would go on, astronomically and mathematically accurate. (Note, not everyone follows this new calendar, and it actually has caused much unnecessary strife among many in the Orthodox world).
Pope Tawadros II’s view
The Good News Canadian Journal interviewed His Holiness and here is what he had to say about this
This problem has nothing to do with religion. It is an astronomical issue. The West follows a calendar and the East follows a different one. It is similar to temperature reading either in Fahrenheit or Celsius. I fully understand that this is a problem for the Copts in the West and am pleased to tell you that we as a Coptic church took the initiative to call for unifying the dates for Easter and Christmas between the two Calendars or at least start with one of the two. So far, Easter unification seems to be easier, but that step is done, we can then move into unifying Christmas as well.
What I think the Coptic Church should do
First, we need to stop treating this like we are changing the Orthodox Creed. All we are doing is FIXING a CALENDAR issue to match what we have found NEEDS FIXING.
There was a time when we Egyptians were known for our astronomical prowess. Many credit the Egyptians for being the first, or one of the first civilizations to create and utilize a calendar. The Egyptian people’s skill in figuring out the calendar was so well known that we were relied on by all of Christianity for it! In the early Church, in fact, several archbishops and bishops decided to ask the Archbishop of Alexandria to send a letter out to everyone telling them what day the Resurrection Feast (a.k.a. Easter) should be. Out of sheer pride for our cultural heritage we should re-calibrate the calendar!
And don’t be fooled by those who claim we will no longer be united with other Orthodox churches. Today, so many of our feasts now actually DIFFER from the Orthodox celebration of the same feast by, you guessed it, 13 days (for those Orthodox who follow the New Revised Julian Calendar)! We often talk about “unity” and “our Orthodox brothers and sisters,” when keeping our calendar as is actually causes a divergence on almost all feasts. For example (using 2016 dates):
- Feast of St. Mark’s Martyrdom: EO – April 25 | Copts – May 8
- Feast of Transfiguration: EO – Aug 6 | Aug 19
- Feast of the Cross: EO – Sept 14 | Copts – Sept 27
- Annunciation Feast: EO – Mar 25 | Copts – April 7
Unfortunately too often we call something “Faith” and “Tradition” when it is not. The way our priests dress, our language, the way our icons look, the way our churches are built, the tunes of our hymns, etc., are all near and dear to our hearts as being small “t” traditions passed on within our various churches, and that is well and dandy (I’m a huge fan of such traditions). But they are not capital “T” Traditions that have to remain in order for us to be practicing Christianity in an Orthodox manner pleasing to God. Add to the list of small “t” traditions the calendar. We Orthodox now are split between Coptic and Julian calendar, and the New Revised Julian Calendar, yet we Copts would not look at the Eastern Orthodox as heretics!
Out of pride for our Egyptian heritage and our skill at astronomy, and also to match what science has shown us is correct, we should change our calendar. An INCIDENTAL fact is that we will be aligned with “the West” and with many Orthodox jurisdictions. To simply hate this idea because it happens to be similar to the West, or the Catholic Church, is a poor reason for not doing something correctly; it’s that same reasoning that has lead us to Protestantism.
Implementing this would be easy. I say we just subtract 13 days from the end of the Coptic New Year and declare the new year to begin on that date. So, for example, instead of celebrating Tute 1 (the Coptic New Year) on September 11th in 2016 (as is usual), we celebrate the first of Tute 13 days earlier, on August 29th. And then we need to calculate leap years in a manner that will fix the cause of discrepancy that will otherwise remain in place (preferably by adopting the Gregorian calendar methodology, which differs from the New Revised Julian Calendar).
On top of that, I agree wholeheartedly with the notion brought forth by many, including Pope Tawadros in a message sent directly to the Pope of Rome, that all Christians calculate the Feast of the Resurrection the same way so we all celebrate on the same day. I think that our Lord deserves that such major events in His life, particularly His triumphant resurrection, be celebrated by all together. Such calendar adjustments and feast calibrations were important to the early Church, and they should be important to us too. Let’s stop seeing this as a threat to Orthodoxy, but rather an opportunity to fix an astronomical discrepancy.
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P.S. Updated 1/9/2016 – I originally posted here my disgruntlement that the Coptic Church seemed to have celebrated Christmas a day early during leap years (Kiahk 28th) in order to align with the January 7th date since it is a national holiday in Egypt. In the comments below we discovered from a note by HG Bishop Raphael that this is actually a Coptic rite and is even found in the midnight praises. The Adam Nativity Psali says, “The day of Nativity is twenty-ninth of Kiahk and on leap-years on the twenty eighth.” According to HG, this is due to a desire to align with exactly 9 months from the annunciation. See the comments below for more detail. Thanks to Anon and Reda for the valuable information.
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SOURCES / FURTHER RESOURCES
Religion and Law in Cyprus, By Achilles C. Emilianides
* Note: my original post inadvertently used the word “astrology” instead of “astronomy.” Thanks to Anon for pointing that out. I’ve updated the post to reflect the term I intended.