Last week I was discussing my plans for the holiday season with a couple of colleague translators on Twitter and I mentioned that in Russia Christmas is celebrated on January, 7 instead of December, 25. Fiona Busfield wanted to know more about it and I thought that it would be a fun thing to write about. So if you want to learn why we don’t celebrate Christmas on the same day as the majority of Christians and have such a thing as the Old New Year, keep reading.
It all started back in 1582 when Pope Gregory XIII replaced the Julian calendar with the new more accurate Gregorian one. The adoption of the new calendar extended over several centuries.
Italy, Spain, Portugal, Rzeczpospolita (the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth) and France were the first to start using it. Over the next couple of years the majority of European countries that existed then, including Holland, Belgium, Austria, and Hungary followed their example.
The German states, which were mostly Protestant, adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1700, Britain in 1752, Sweden in 1753. Alaska started using the new calendar after Russian czar Alexander II sold it to the USA in 1867. Japan adopted it in 1873 and China in 1911.
But Russia didn’t adopt the Gregorian calendar until the beginning of 1918, the main reason for this being strong resistance of the Russian Orthodox Church. Since Eastern Christianity was the state religion of the Russian Empire it had to be reckoned with. Then in 1917 came the Revolution.
On January, 26 1918 Lenin signed a decree called “On the imposition of the West-European calendar in the Russian republic”. However the Orthodox Church refused to give up the Julian calendar and continues using it to this day.
In the USSR religion was not welcome, so Christmas was not a state holiday. Of course, this didn’t prevent people especially those living in the countryside from celebrating it. My Grandmother, who was born in 1933, has recently told me that when she was a kid Christmas was the main holiday, which was followed by the New Year a week later.
This means that in spite of the fact that by that time the new year started on January, 1 and Christmas was celebrated on January, 7, a considerable number of people were celebrating the ‘old’ new year (according to the Julian calendar) on the night of January, 13 to January, 14.
Years went by and gradually the New Year became a more significant holiday than Christmas in Russia. We started decorating the tree, giving each other presents and cooking lots of tasty things for the New Year’s Eve, and not for Christmas Eve.
In 1991 Christmas once again became a state holiday in Russia, although the New Year remains the big day (at least for the majority of Russians). Since the Orthodox Church is still using the Julian calendar, it’s celebrated on January, 7. The Old New Year has also stood the test of time. My guess is that it might be due to its fun oxymoronic name. It’s not widely celebrated, but we do congratulate each other on it. So if you have some Russian colleagues, customers or business-partners congratulate them on it too, they will be pleasantly surprised.
Another thing that’s useful to know if you have business with Russians is that the official holidays last 10 days on average, meaning that all banks and public offices are closed from January, 1 till around January, 10. This period is determined every year and depends on whether the first working day after Christmas, which is January, 9, falls on a weekday. If it’s a Saturday or a Sunday, everyone starts working on the following Monday. For example, this year January, 9 is a Saturday, so the first working day will be January, 11.