Xmas quiet in Jerusalem? Check the Julian calendar

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Along with millions of other Americans, I am on the road this fine Christmas Day. Thus, when checking into a typical American hotel, I was immediately presented with the Holiday edition of USA Today.

Turn the front page and, lo and behold, there is this rather bizarre variation on a very, very familiar story about Christmas.

The basic thrust of the story? Hey, did you know that Christmas is different in the Holy Land itself, as opposed to normal life for Christian human beings on Planet Earth (which seems to have a lot to do with the calendars used in shopping malls)? The lede focuses on the point of view of one David Parsons, formerly of the Outer Banks in North Carolina. Long ago, he moved to Jerusalem and, dang it, this American Christian is still struggling to get his holiday vibe going.

In the Holy Land, there are no Christmas tree sellers on the side of the road, no Jingle Bells played on the radio, no Black Friday department store sales. And that’s not a bad thing, he says.

“Here there aren’t those constant ads on the television or sales, sales, sales. Being free of that allows you to concentrate on the real meaning of Christmas,” says Parsons, who left North Carolina long ago.

Christians make up less than 2% of the populations of both Israel and the West Bank territory, and though here is where Jesus was born, lived and died, there are few outward signs of the celebration of his birth in much of the region.

In Jerusalem there are almost no Christmas decorations except for the Old City’s Christian Quarter. Dec. 25 is just Tuesday, a working day for Jews and Muslims.

As it turns out, there are some quite religious Christmas celebrations in logical places such as, well, Bethlehem and Nazareth. Some of those have been known to show up on global television networks.

The big problem with this story, however, is that the people who produced it seem to know nothing about the history of Christian liturgical calendars in this part of the world.

You see, there is a very good reason that Dec. 25th is simply another day for many — in some places most — of the Christians in the Middle East.

Why is that? Well, that’s because the ancient Orthodox Church of Jerusalem is following the ancient Julian calendar and, thus, Christmas falls on Jan. 7, so the celebrations tend to kick into gear on Jan. 6.

This is one of the most commonly known facts about Eastern Orthodoxy, leading to a wave of photo opportunities on Jan. 7 that often show up in American newspapers — reminding news consumers that there is, for many Orthodox believers, an “Orthodox Christmas” for the same reason as there is an “Orthodox Easter.”

Click here for a quick explanation of this situation. It’s a rather basic fact to know about Christianity in the Middle East.

Read the whole story. Maybe there was supposed to be a reference to the ancient date for Christmas in there somewhere and it got edited out. Instead, the story ends like this:

As they do every year, at sunset on Christmas Eve, Parsons, his wife and their 13-year-old son will go to Mar Elias, a beautiful old stone monastery that affords a commanding view of Bethlehem and Shepherd’s Field.

Last week Parsons’ employer, the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem, hosted a homey Christmas party for staffers and volunteers, who hail from across the globe. The pro-Israel organization also threw a kosher-catered Christmas-Hanukkah party attended by Israeli officials.

At home in his Jerusalem apartment, Parsons does his best to keep alive the Outer Banks traditions of his child hood by the sea.

“I have my own little oyster roast, but it’s with the seafood I can find here.” The only problem, Parsons said, is that “it’s hard to invite my Israeli friends over for Christmas because it’s definitely not kosher. That’s life in the Holy Land.”

Totally bizarre. It’s like the story is totally focused on the American way of doing Christmas, or something, even though the story is set in Jerusalem. Most strange.

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.

  • sari

    tmatt,
    I thought the article addressed what it’s like to be a Christian living in a non-Christian country where Christians are tolerated/ignored but not persecuted, not the issue of Orthodox vs non-Orthodox Christians. In Israel, times stops for the Jewish Sabbath and holidays. Christian holidays are acknowledged there in the same way Jewish holidays are here–not. The article reminds me of a conversation. While waiting to depart from Ben Gurion, a fellow passenger commented that he couldn’t wait to be back in a Christian country (verbatim); the world stopped revolving around him when he stepped off the plane and it made him uncomfortable.

    • sari

      By weird coincidence, I just received an email from family in Israel which mentioned:

      “Christmas trees were again distributed this year by JNF (Jewish National
      Fund) to our Christian citizens. ”

      News to me, but a little research showed it to be true.
      http://www.jpost.com/GreenIsrael/PEOPLEANDTHEENVIRONMENT/Article.aspx?id=249251

      Now *that* would make an interesting story for American consumption (and should be forwarded to the poor, deprived expats featured in the article).

  • Julia

    What Sari said.

  • Alifa

    Things the writer was unaware of: Russian Jewish immigrants often have Christmas trees, especially if they own shops. Lots of Israelis love to go to the various monasteries to hear Christmas songs at this season, and many join the international pilgrims in Bethlehem. Israel radio — Kol HaMusica, the classical station, has an hour or so every week on Sunday afternoons dedicated to specifically Christian classical music. As I drove home from work on Christmas Eve, I listened to a program about Christmas songs.
    And few people are aware of the small percentage of Jewish converts to Christianity who also celebrate discreetly in places like Yad HaShmonah near Jerusalem. There are also Hebrew-Catholic congregations in Jerusalem, Jaffa, and a few other places.
    So, Christmas in Israel is definitely low-key, but it is also definitely present.

  • Daniel

    But TMatt, everyone knows the New York Times thinks the world revolves Around the U.S. And they should know, right? SoUSA Today is merely following the party line.
    All ugly Americans aren’t conservative; some are progressive. We have to let the mainstream media define the terms and we adapt. When a little provincialism is displayed we need to cut some slack.

  • tmatt

    Several comments.
    * The story was in USA Today, not the New York Times. I expect more on basics from the newspaper for travelers.
    ;-)

    * I know the emphasis was on Americans. Still, it was inaccurate not to note that the city’s largest Christmas celebrations are on Jan. 7.

    * Imagine this: US media ignoring the Palestinian Christians? In this case, yes.

    • sari

      tmatt,
      If you want to be picky, USA Today should have referred to Israel by its name, Israel. Few (if any) secular travel guides use the older and religiously loaded Holy Land. The issue of how the Orthodox celebrate Christmas is peripheral to this story, clearly timed to coincide with American Christmas. If the celebration’s that big, someone will cover it. A better and more interesting story might have addressed how Christians cope with the State shutting down during Jewish holidays.

      alifa, a significant percentage of the Russian Jews who made aliyah aren’t Jewish at all. Many are the non-Jewish spouses and children of Jews. Others are technically Jewish but grew up entirely secular in the former USSR. Very, very few maintain any level of Jewish observance.

  • Julia

    TMatt: Your link to the explanation of the Julian calendar doesn’t work so here’s the one at Wikipedia:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Julian_calendar

    Not all Orthodox churches follow the pure Julian calendar; some followed a revised solar version. The chart of when various countries accepted the Pope gregory’s new calendar is very interesting. Here’s some relevant passages:
    . . . Russia remained on the Julian calendar until 1918 (1 February became 14 February), while Greece continued to use it until 1 March 1923 (Gregorian).[72]
    Although all Eastern Orthodox countries (most of them in Eastern or Southeastern Europe) had adopted the Gregorian calendar by 1924, their national churches had not. The “Revised Julian calendar” was proposed during a synod in Constantinople in May 1923, consisting of a solar part which was and will be identical to the Gregorian calendar until the year 2800, and a lunar part which calculated Pascha (Easter) astronomically at Jerusalem. All Orthodox churches refused to accept the lunar part, so almost all Orthodox churches continue to celebrate Pascha according to the Julian calendar (with the exception of the Estonian Orthodox Church.[74] and the Finnish Orthodox Church)[75]
    The solar part of the Revised Julian calendar was accepted by only some Orthodox churches. Those that did accept it, with hope for improved dialogue and negotiations with the Western denominations, were the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, the Patriarchates of Alexandria, Antioch, the Orthodox Churches of Greece, Cyprus, Romania, Poland, Bulgaria (the last in 1963), and the Orthodox Church in America (although some OCA parishes are permitted to use the Julian calendar). Thus these churches celebrate the Nativity on the same day that Western Christians do, 25 December Gregorian until 2800.
    The Orthodox Churches of Jerusalem, Russia, Serbia, Macedonia, Georgia, Ukraine, and the Greek Old Calendarists and other groups continue to use the Julian calendar, thus they celebrate the Nativity on 25 December Julian (which is 7 January Gregorian until 2100). The Russian Orthodox Church has some parishes in the West which celebrate the Nativity on 25 December Gregorian.

  • Tim H

    “In Jerusalem there are almost no Christmas decorations except for the Old City’s Christian Quarter.”

    Huh. So there are almost no decorations celebrating this Christian holiday, except where the city’s Christians live. I’m glad USA Today was here to tell us that.

  • http://kingslynn.blogspot.com C. Wingate

    Exactly what percentage of parishes in Jerusalem/Palestine/Israel are on the Gregorian calendar? It’s not zero, by any means: there is a Latin rite and an Anglican parish in each of the major cities and towns, and this is also ground zero for the various Eastern rite Catholic churches. Yes, it might have been nice to mention that some Christians won’t be celebrating for another week anyway, but the notion that the quietness of the time is due to the predominance of old calendar celebration is, as they say on Wikipedia, “citation needed”.

  • Pingback: Stories I’ve Found, 12/28/2012 « homiliesandstraythoughts

  • Daniel

    I don’t know why, but only 8 of the 11 comments display on my page. Out of curiosity, I would like to read the rest.


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