Celebrating Christmas should be about the same idea when it comes to the Christian faith, right?
However, it is interesting to note that different denominations celebrate Christmas on different ways and even different dates — and all of this due to historical changes that have nothing to do with Christianity itself!
Here, we’re taking a look at the history of Catholic and Orthodox Christianity, how both denominations celebrate Christmas, and where the main differences lie.
Most individuals, especially from the West, are accustomed to or familiar with a Cahtolic-oriented Christmans, so looking at the Orthodox way of celebrating the birth of Christ may be completely new to you. Join me as we look into this interesting religious component that has become part of our cultures even though being celebrated differently across the world.
The History of Catholicism, Orthodox Christianity & Christmas Traditions
When looking back at the historical events that caused not only the division of the two denominations in the first place but also the reason why Christmas is celebrated differently, is quite interesting, and much of the reasons has little to do with the Christian faith itself.
The First Denomination of the Christian Faith: Catholicism and Orthodoxy
First of all, it is important to note that, through time, the Christian faith has branched out into a number of different denominations, and some oldest denominations are the Catholic faith and Orthodox Christianity. It is safe to say that other denominations like Protestantism came only centuries later.
The fundamental differences between Catholicism and Orthodox Christianity are not too vast; however, when it comes to the celebration of Christmas and the traditions that go with each denomination, there are some stark differences that come from as far back as the change of calendar formats and a certain incident in Constantinople.
One of the main reasons Orthodox Christianity exists today comes from a certain day in 1054, where conflict with the Catholic Church caused the Pope’s representative at the time, Cardinal Humbert, to introduce Christianity to the Bull of Excommunication, which he went and placed in the city’s main center of worship, called the Hagia Sophia, and which still exists today as one of the most magnificent places of worship ever constructed.
Anway, Cardinal Humbert placed the document known as the Bull of Excommunication on the altar in the Cathedral and then left.
The content of this document expelled all members of the church and condemned them to hell by “denying” them an entrance to heaven.
The Calendars That Changed Christmas
Until the 16th century, a calendar known as the Julian calendar was used, which was adopted way back by the Roman Emperor Julius Caesar; hence the name. This calendar was solar-based, but after its implementation, Astrologers realized that the calendar’s calculations are a little off. In this context, “off” means that the Julian Calendar overestimated the length of a solar hear by approximately eleven minutes.
After this realization, a new calendar was formulated and introduced in 1582 called the Gregorian calendar, and this is the calendar that is still used today as a worldwide standard.
However, the new calendar impacted the dates when Passover and Easter were celebrated by Christians by causing an overlap, and the Orthodox Church did not agree with an overlap between Easter and Passover because of the nature of these two religious events.
Thus, the Orthodox Church decided, for religious purposes, to continue following the original dates of the Julian calendar which ultimately affected when they would celebrate religious events compared to other denominations.
So, the majority of the world celebrates Christmas December 25, the date we all know so well, while the Orthodox Church dares to be different by celebrating Christmas in January. According to the Gregorian Calendar, the birth of Jesus Christ falls on December, and according to the Julian Calendar, the birth of Jesus Christ falls on January 7th.
When looking at the calendars, the Julian December 25th falls on the Gregorian January 7th, so there is logic to this change in dates.
Make no mistake that there has been much debate over the years regarding the differences between these two calendars and why the majority of the world adopted the Gregorian Calendar, and these debates range from religious to political.
The Main Differences Between Orthodox and Catholic Christmas
For the Catholic Church, Lutheran Church, Anglican Church and Methodist Church, Christmastide starts on December 24 at sunset, also known as Christmas Eve. Christmas Eve is not seen as part of Christmas but more of an advent, which is a signal of the upcoming Christmastide. Additionally, in many liturgical calendars, Christmastide is followed by the Twelfth Night which is at sunset on 5 January, known as Twelfth Night, which is also closely related to Epiphanytide.
Within Christmastide (the period in which Christmas is celebrated), there are several individual celebrations which includes Christmas Day on December 25, St. Stephen’s Day on December 26 (also known as boxing day from a more commercial perspective), Childermas on December 28, New Year’s Eve on December 31, January 1, which is known as Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, and finally, the Feast of the Holy Family, which is celebrated on varied dates.
On January 5, the Twelve Days of Christmas ends with Epiphany Eve or Epi The Twelve Days of Christmas terminate with Epiphany Eve, which is the twelfth night.
Russian Orthodox Christmas Traditions
Christmas Day in Russia marks the birth of Jesus Christ in the Christian Orthodox tradition. Although celebrating Christmas was banned during the times of the Soviet Union, Christmas is now regaining not only meaning to Orthodox Christians and Russians in general but also becoming more popular as a religious celebration in Russia.
Orthodox Christmas Day is a public holiday, so you’ll find businesses and schools closed so people can spend time with their friends and family.
People in Russia celebrate Christmas Day very much the same as Catholics and other denominations do by having a big family dinner, attending a Christmas church service and the coming together of relatives and friends as a celebration of goodwill.
You’ll be able to identify an Orthodox Christmas celebration by the following symbols: a decorated fir tree, a star and a representation of the baby Jesus Christ.
Catholic Christmas Traditions
The word Christmas is very much Catholic as it comes from the Old English words Crīstes mæss or Christ-Mass, and mass is a central theme in the Catholic tradition. Since ancient times, Mass has also been at the center of celebrating Christ’s birth. Thus, to Catholics, Christmas is a holy day of obligation, where the Church calls all on all of those with the Catholic faith to celebrate Mass.
Your parish might even celebrate one of four different Masses, namely the Vigil Mass, which takes place on Christmas Eve, Midnight Mass or “Mass of the Angels,” Dawn Mass or the “Mass of the Shepherds”, and Christmas Day Mass, which is also known as the “Mass of the Divine Word” Each of these Masses use different passages in the Bible and specific prayers to celebrate Christmas. Here is more background on what some of the Mass celebrations entail:
Historically, Midnight Mass was celebrated at midnight; however, these days it is done a bit earlier. During Midnight Mass, the service focuses on the classic Christmas story from the Gospel of Luke, and is known to be a very elaborate affair. It is quite long — longer than any other mass, but it is a very special occasion of which young and old are encouraged to attend.
The announcement of the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ is always chanted or sung on Christmas Eve. According to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, “The announcement of the Solemnity of the Nativity of the Lord from the Roman Martyrology draws upon Sacred Scripture to declare in a formal way the birth of Christ. It begins with creation and relates the birth of the Lord to the major events and personages of sacred and secular history.”
This is not an activity you’d do during Mass, but it’s a Catholic Christmas tradition nonetheless. The tradition I’m referring to is creating your own nativity scene with great care and attention to detail. Apart from Joseph, Mary, and the infant Jesus, you can add angels, shepherds, farm animals and other figures on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day.
Putting It All Together: Christmas Celebrated in Different Ways
In the end, there are noticeable differences between Orthodox Christmas and Catholic Christmans, with the most obvious being the different dates, and the more elaborate traditions that come with Catholic Christmas.
When it comes to celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ, there isn’t much difference in the inherent meaning of how Catholics and Orthodox Christians celebrate the birth of their Savior. The history is interesting to know, though, and makes it easier to understand the differences.
Last update: June 5, 2023
United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. “United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.” www.usccb.org, 2022, www.usccb.org/.