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Orthodox Christians in A-K Valley celebrate Christmas steeped in tradition

| Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2014, 10:42 a.m.
The Rev. Mark Swindle lights the troytsa candle (trinity candle) for the Christmas Eve Compline Service in Holy Virgin Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Arnold on Monday, Jan. 6, 2014.
Erica Dietz | Valley News Dispatch
The Rev. Mark Swindle lights the troytsa candle (trinity candle) for the Christmas Eve Compline Service in Holy Virgin Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Arnold on Monday, Jan. 6, 2014.

It's still appropriate to wish some of your neighbors Merry Christmas.

Today is Christmas for Orthodox Christians, whose branch of Christianity celebrates the holiday two weeks after a majority of Western religions.

“Mainly Ukrainians, Serbians, older Russians, are the Orthodox religions that celebrate Christmas on the seventh,” said the Rev. Father Mark Swindle on Monday as he prepared Holy Virgin Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Arnold for Christmas Eve services. “Really, the only difference between the celebration of Christmas (compared to other religions) is the date.”

Orthodox Christians follow the Julian calendar, the calendar used by all Christians until the Gregorian calendar was introduced in 1582.

Swindle's parish of about 30 was set to celebrate Christmas Eve, or Grand Compline, services at 4 p.m. Monday. Christmas Day service is scheduled for 10 a.m. today.

“Tonight, we'll follow our services with a feast of the 12 traditional dishes to commemorate the 12 Apostles,” Swindle said as his wife, Stephanie, and two daughters, Victoria and Anna, helped him prepare for the celebration. “We fast without meat and dairy for 40 days before Christmas and then celebrate with a feast after.”

The 12 dishes range from borscht and fish to mashed beans and sauerkraut with peas.

Swindle said he believes marking the holiday after the secular date of celebration allows him and his parishioners to focus on the reason for the season.

“You kind of put everything that goes along with secular Christmas behind you and prepare yourself for the birth of Jesus,” he said. “It's peaceful.”

That's not to say Swindle doesn't think his branch of religion could change the date it celebrates the birth of Christ, as many other religions have done through the centuries.

“We're all Americans now,” he said. “It would make sense to celebrate with everyone else. “I think it would add to harmony and give people a better understanding that we're not that different.”

Swindle's mother-in-law, Catharine Litvak, 84, agrees.

“In my time celebrating Christmas, we've seen so many interreligious marriages that it should change,” said Litvak, an Arnold native who lives in Carnegie. “No one's actually sure when Jesus was born, anyway. It wouldn't cause anything to change, other than the date.”

Why the difference

The Julian calendar was introduced in 46 B.C. by Julius Caesar to bring uniformity to the sprawling Roman Empire.

Although it was an improvement over the Roman calendar — which was difficult to follow since it was reset with the reign of every new emperor — the Julian calendar contains an error of one day every 128 years, meaning the day for Christmas will continue to drift.

In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII introduced what became known as the Gregorian calendar. In predominantly Catholic countries, such as Italy and Spain, it gained relatively quick acceptance.

In non-Catholic nations, such as Britain and its empire, it was not accepted until 1752.

And in Eastern Europe, with its close ties to the Orthodox Church, acceptance of the Gregorian calendar took even longer. Russia, for example, continued to use the Julian system until the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917.

The last European country to adopt the Gregorian calendar was Greece, in 1923.

While countries may have adopted the Gregorian system, the Eastern national churches did not. Instead, many adopted a revised Julian calendar, which dropped 13 days in 1923 and kept the Julian and Gregorian leap years in sync until 2800.

These so-called New Calendarists include the Orthodox churches of Greece, Bulgaria, Romania and Poland, which celebrate Christmas on Dec. 25.

The Old Calendarists, including the Orthodox churches of Russia, Serbia, Ukraine and Jerusalem, use the Julian calendar. Dec. 25 on the Julian calendar coincides with Jan. 7 on the Gregorian calendar.

R.A. Monti is a freelance reporter for Trib Total Media.

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