NPR wrestles with Orthodox calendars

It must be so confusing to try to cover the churches of the East in the context of North America. Things are so complicated here in the New World.

Which brings us to a lovely little NPR story about that wonderful intersection between faith, family and food that is so common in the various ethnic branches of Eastern Orthodoxy and, of course, most other forms of religion around the world. Think Garrison Keillor and sweet corn or, even better, that cheesy broccoli-and-rice casserole (often with chicken) that is so important in Wednesday-night church suppers across the Lutheran Midwest. Or cue up the Jon Stewart jokes about Jewish foods (or not-so-Jewish foods).

One of the many reasons that the Orthodox are known for lively feasts is that fact that we spend so much time during church year in various kinds of fasts. At the end of Great and Holy Lent, people are going to want to eat meat and dairy early and often. And the same goes for Nativity Lent.

This brings us to NPR and its story about pierogies — those wonderful dumplings that you can fill with veggies, with cheese, with the meats of your choice or any combination of the above. Thus, in this lovely (and lengthy) chunk of this tasty story we are told:

Many Americans are busy sweeping up tinsel, but Ukrainian, Russian and other Orthodox churches are preparing for Christmas this week. And at the Christmas Eve feast, most of the faithful will eat pierogies. These dumplings are traditionally prepared at home, but recently they’ve become something of a parish industry.

Myra Petrouchtchak sets up shop in the basement of St. John the Baptist Ukrainian Church, a small parish of about 50 people in Southeast Portland. She’s sitting with a few dozen others, stuffing and shaping potato pierogies by hand — more than 2,000 pierogies. They’ve developed a following in the neighborhood.

“People come here and say that those pierogies remind them about their childhood,” she says. “Not only Ukrainian people — some German people, Polish people. And it’s like, ‘Oh, my grandmother used to do that.’ ”

Petrouchtchak and her husband, the priest at this parish, started weekly pierogi sales when they came to the church five years ago. They’ve raised enough money to renovate the church basement. But from the beginning, this was more than just a fundraiser.

“It was good for the parish as a community,” says Petrouchtchak, “because many young women didn’t know how to make pierogies or didn’t have time to make pierogies at home. But here, all children can learn how to do it and carry on the tradition.”

Please note that the word “tradition” has a small “t.” That matters to the Orthodox. Still, it’s nice to see this kind of practical, affectionate nod to the small-t traditions that are handed down from generation to generation to generation, often in kitchens (at home and at church).

But I digress. The problem is right there in the lede.

To see if you can spot it, consider the top of this localized Orthodox Christmas story from Kitchener, up in Ontario, Canada.

WATERLOO REGION – Christmas may be over for many of us, but for some Orthodox Christians, the holy day is yet to come.

Many Eastern-rite churches mark Christmas on Jan. 7.

Note the presence of the word “some,” as in “for SOME Orthodox Christians, the holy day is yet to come.”

That’s right, some Orthodox Christians celebrate on Jan. 7 according to the old Julian calendar. But many more — at least here in North America — celebrate Christmas from Dec. 25 until Jan. 5, following the newer Gregorian calendar used in the West. The Orthodox worldwide still use the Julian calendar for Pascha (known as Easter in the West).

Thus, the lede in the NPR story should be corrected. It needs some kind of qualifier to let listeners know that some Orthodox believers (even some Russians) ate their pierogies early, early on Dec. 25th. Others will do so — as the story says — on Jan. 7th. It’s a small mistake, I know. But you will see it crop up in more than a few news stories in the next day or two.

Meanwhile, lovers of pierogies also need to know that it is highly unlikely that they will find them in the parish halls of Greek churches, whether we are talking about old calendar folks or new. Pierogies at a Greek feast? That just wouldn’t be traditional.

Print Friendly

About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Steve in NYC

    I don’t understand the comment that many Orthodox Christians in North America “celebrate Christmas from Dec. 25 until Jan. 5″. Orthodox Christians begin singing “Christ is Born! Glorify Him!” on 21 November. This is the feast of the Entry of Mary into the Temple and on that day and throughout the rest of the Nativity Lent the first hymn of each ode of the Nativity Canon is used as the last hymn of each ode of other canons. There is also a 5-day Pre-feast of the Nativity beginning at sundown on 19 December. Then the three days of Christmas and the Post-Feast of Nativity ENDING ON 31 DECEMBER with the Leave-Taking of Nativity. There follows the feast of St Basil & also of the Circumcision on 1 January and finally the Pre-Feast of Theophany 2-5 January. There simply is (in the East) no 25 December – 5 January “12 Days of Christmas”.

  • melxiopp

    The further difficulty lost on many Orthodox Christians not to mention non-Orthodox Christian journalists is that all Orthodox celebrate Christmas on December 25 – at two different times. That is, for those following the Julian calendar, December 25 falls on what is January 7 on the Gregorian calendar. It’s sort of like the difference between counties that follow and do not follow Day Light Savings – same clock, different time.

  • melxiopp

    Steve, in the East, Theophany on January 6 was the original celebration of the Nativity of Christ. This was moved to December 25.

    In Orthodox Christianity, the Nativity of Christ is prepared for both by the Fast as well as the slow introduction of the feast through the hymnody of the services, e.g., the Nativity canon at Matins/Orthros, as well as the commemorations. This is not, properly speaking, the celebration of Christmas, but the preparation for it. The feast follows the fast – and being Orthodox, we sometimes celebrate by fasting, too, e.g., Eve of Theophany, Exaltation of the Cross.

  • tmatt

    Keep it up folks.

    You are underlining the basic complexity of the situation.

  • Julia

    I was introduced to pierogies going to Catholic weddings at the Polish Hall in East St Louis IL. Then I married a Pole from St. Stan’s in Chicago and more pierogies. They are not just traditional with the Orthodox. They are part and parcel of Polish culture.

    Polish Christmas also includes the Oplatki.

    These customs are Central/Eastern European where the borders shifted constantly and armies were running East and West. The Orthodox and Catholics often lived cheek by jowl influencing and contributing to each other’s folkways. And not to forget the Jewish influence, too – among other things, witness the popularity of delicatessen food among Eastern European Christians.

  • Julia

    Pascha (known as Easter in the West).

    This is the vernacular English/German not used universally in the West.

    In the Catholic Church we refer to the Paschal Mysteries. Our Church has not dropped the root of your Pascha.

    The root word is derived from Latin and Greek words for the Jewish Passover.

    Easter is German-English and has no connection to the West other than those sources and has not totally replaced Paschal and its derivatives, especially ecclesiastically and liturgically.

    - – - – - -

    Check out Wikipedia on pierogies.

  • Pete

    By Gregorian, I think we technically mean New-Julian. Technically, haha. There is a difference.

  • mer

    Pierogi is plural; pierog is the singular.

  • mattk

    It’s not just the slavs who make pierogi. My parish is American Orthodox and we make pierogi. Of course, we also make casseroles.

  • John Pack Lambert

    However when we say what day people in New York City, Detroit or Los Angeles are celebrating a holiday, we mean the official day there. The Muslims always celebrate Ramadan the same days on their calendar, but it needs to be explained that it is a different day on ours.

    It does not work to say all Orthodox do Dec. 25th, when Orthodox next-door neighbors could celebrate different days in theory.

    However it would probably help if the explanation that this difference is based on a choice of calendar and not a disagreement on what day should be observed would help.

  • Fr. John Whiteford

    If they put in a quantifier, they would need to have said “most” Orthodox celebrate Christmas according to the Julian Calendar. “Some” or “many” would be more accurate if you were limiting the discussion to the United States.

  • David Withun

    To be fair and accurate, all Orthodox follow the Julian Calendar (okay, except the Finnish Church, which follows the Gregorian): most Orthodox follow the Old Julian Calendar and many Orthodox follow the New Julian Calendar. But, we all love pierogies (except the Greeks with their gyros) — boy, I guess this is complicated…

  • Pete

    I’m Greek and love pierogies…there. And good call on the Church in Finland.

  • Hector

    Re: This is the feast of the Entry of Mary into the Temple

    Just out of curiosity, is this referring to the tradition that Mary was a consecrated virgin at the Temple before she married Joseph?

    Some of the higher-church Anglicans, like my church in Boston, do tend to believe that Mary was a perpetual virgin, but I don’t think we take a position on whether she was a consecrated virgin at the temple or not….though that tradition is certainly a very old one, and probably a reliable one.