Orthodox Nativity celebration focuses more on the spiritual

| Saturday, Jan. 7, 2012

As Orthodox Catholics around the Alle-Kiski Valley celebrate Christmas today, the focus is on the religious holiday, not the secular aspects also connected to Dec. 25.

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

"Mainly Orthodox Catholics of Ukrainian, Serbian and 'Old Russian' origins celebrate Christmas on Jan. 7," said Father Mark Swindle, preparing Holy Virgin Ukrainian Orthodox Church, in Arnold, for Christmas Eve services.

Swindle said he expected about 50 people to gather at the church for last night's Christmas Eve -- or Grand Compline -- services, and about 100 more for Christmas Day -- or Divine Liturgy -- services at 10 this morning.

Father Alexander Poshyvajlo, of St. Michael Orthodox Church in West Deer, said that despite the difference in dates, the point of Orthodox Christmas is no different than that of Western Christian churches.

"We celebrate the nativity of the Lord," said Poshyvajlo, a Ukrainian immigrant, standing inside the church, established more than eight decades ago. "Christ's birth should be celebrated every day, not just today. It is the single greatest miracle in the history of mankind."

Poshyvajlo said he expected more than 50 people to fill the tiny church for today's 10 a.m. Christmas service.

Swindle said Orthodox Catholics prepare for Christmas by fasting from meat and dairy products for 40 days.

"Christmas is when we celebrate," he said. "We feast and party, and we have a good time."

Homer Kliene, a parishioner and reader at Holy Virgin, said he likes celebrating Christmas 13 days after a majority of other Christian denominations.

"It's not as commercial," he said. "This is strictly religious. It starts the beginning of our religious year."

Kliene, who said he was raised as a Lutheran but converted to Ukrainian Orthodox when he married his wife, recently helped restore some of the 85-year-old church's artwork.

"It's a small church, but it's a beautiful church, especially this time of year," he said, standing in the church among stunning wall paintings of Jesus and other religious symbols. "When I think of all the prayers said here, it's amazing."

Swindle said he likes that Orthodox Catholics still use the Julian Calendar.

"It's closer to our heritage by keeping the old calendar," he said. "God knew what he was doing back then.

"That's why we follow it."

Why some Christians celebrate Christmas today

The Julian Calendar was introduced in 46 B.C. by Julius Caesar in an effort to bring uniformity to the process of counting days, months and years throughout 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 still 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, the Gregorian calendar gained relatively quick acceptance. For non-Catholic nations, such as Britain and its empire, acceptance of a Catholic invention would not take place 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, none of the Eastern national churches adopted it. 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, all of which celebrate the nativity on Dec. 25.

The Old Calendarists, including the Orthodox churches of Russia, Serbia, Ukraine and Jerusalem, continue to use the Julian calendar, on which Dec. 25 falls on Jan. 7 of the Gregorian Calendar.

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