Comment Comment and Features

A tale of three Christmases

A man dressed as Santa Claus stands on the wall of the Old City in Jerusalem (AP)

This year, for the first time in the history of the state of Israel, Christmas Day will be a public holiday. This is not the result of a sudden concession by the Israeli government to its Christian population or to honour Jerusalem as the birthplace of Christianity. It is simply because Christmas overlaps with an official Jewish holy day, Hanukkah, something which hasn’t happened for more than a century.

Unlike Catholic and Protestant Christmas, which is always on December 25 in the Gregorian calendar, Hanukkah, like other Jewish holy dates, changes each year. All Jewish festivals are reliant on the ancient Hebrew calendar which follows the phases of the moon and according to which we are now in the year 5777, not 2016.

This year, Hanukkah starts on December 24 and finishes on January 1. Next year, 2017, though, it will be prior to Christmas, December 12-20.

Regardless of how the months and days are measured, the collision of Jewish and Christian holy days draws attention to the conflict of calendars in the Holy Land. Five calendars regulate all the festivals, high holidays and fast days of the three monotheistic religions.

Few of the millions of viewers who watch the televised Midnight Mass in the Church of the Nativity on December 25 realise that they are seeing the first of a trio of Christmas Days in the Holy Land. Three Christmas Days are marked across Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories by the different Christian communities, resulting in three Christmases on different dates in the same towns.

Although Jesus observed the Hebrew lunar calendar, which continues to be the official calendar of both Judaism and Israel, the Julian calendar, which had been initiated by Julius Caesar in 46BC to reform the Roman calendar, was then the calendar of the Roman administrators of Palestine. The Islamic (Hijri) calendar is also lunar.

However, unlike Judaism and Islam, the Christian churches observe three calendars, resulting in a miscellany of Christmas Days. While Catholics and Protestants in the Holy Land will celebrate the birthday of Jesus on December 25, the Greek Orthodox and the Syrian Orthodox will observe it on January 7 and the Armenian Orthodox on January 18.

Some but not all of the Christian Orthodox follow the Julian calendar and most Armenians stick to what they call the Revised Julian Calendar, but the Catholics and Protestants observe the Gregorian calendar. In 1582, because Julius Caesar’s old calendar had gradually fallen out of sync with the seasons, so that Easter could sometimes be as late as May 8, Pope Gregory XIII introduced dramatic changes to the practice of the Church’s date-keeping.

Initially, due to the antagonism between Catholic and Protestant powers, many countries resisted the Vatican’s innovations and stuck to the Emperor’s ancient calendar.

For instance, Queen Elizabeth and William Shakespeare celebrated Christmas according to the Julian calendar.

Britain finally adopted the Catholic calendar in 1752 and took it, along with the British flag, to the four corners of the globe, resulting in it becoming the internationally accepted civil calendar.

Countries such as Russia and Ukraine adhere to the Gregorian calendar in civil life, but not for religious festivals, so Russian Christmas is in January. Since 1923 Greece has only had the Gregorian calendar. Unlike the Greek Orthodox in the Holy Land who observe Christmas in January, in Greece it is celebrated on December 25. The Greek Orthodox in Jordan also celebrate Christmas on December 25. The Jordanian churches were told by the government they could only have one national holiday for Christmas and one for Easter. To compromise, the Greek Orthodox celebrate Christmas on the Catholic date and the Catholics celebrate Easter on the Orthodox date.

Because many countries have treated Christmas Day as a moveable feast, it would be possible to have the Holy Land’s three Christmases on the same day. Indeed, some Palestinian Christians say that the duplication of celebrations detracts from the spirit and the buzz of the holiday.

One local Arab Catholic in Jerusalem said: “If you’re a Christian in Ramallah, Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Nazareth or Haifa, the festivity is diluted. To start with, apart from Bethlehem and the areas around a few churches in Israel, there are no seasonal displays on show, no trees, no strings of lights, no carols on the radio.

“Unity among us Arab Christians is important. There are only about 50,000 of us in the West Bank and Gaza living among four million Muslims, and 140,000 Christians in Israel and East Jerusalem among over six million Jews and over 1.5 million Muslims.”

Another reason for the perpetuation of the Julian calendar in the Holy Land is that it pre-dates Christianity and was in use during the lifetime of Jesus, and also pre-dates Islam. In his book Year of the Locust, Salim Tamari, a Palestinian professor of sociology, notes that some Palestinians believe that it is more in tune with the land than the Muslim or Western calendars.

Archbishop Aristarchos of the Greek Orthodox Church in Jerusalem said that in the Holy Land, as in Mount Sinai and Mount Athos, they decided to keep the Julian calendar. “We didn’t want to cause a split as happened in Greece when the Gregorian calendar was introduced. There were the Old Calendarists and the New Calendarists.”

While some Palestinian Christians might yearn for a united celebration at Christmas in Bethlehem, there are practical grounds for avoiding it. With each of the Holy Land’s three Christmases being marked by traditional processions to the Church of the Nativity and solemn services inside it, there could be problems if they all did so simultaneously.

Fr Athanasius Macora, the Catholic Church’s representative in matters related to sharing the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and Church of the Nativity, explained: “There are no plans for a united date in the Church of the Nativity. In Bethlehem things are complicated by the status quo. If Christmas were to be on the same day then all the denominations would have to accept deep compromise, but they can’t do that, because they would have to give up major rights. The Armenians might like to move to January 7 or even December 25, but that would present problems for the other communities. There would have to be an entirely new timetable.”

He gave a vivid account of how in Jerusalem, whenever the Greek and Catholic Easter coincide, as they did in 2014 and will again next year, it is difficult to cope with the massive influx of pilgrims from all over the world. “The Church of the Holy Sepulchre doesn’t have the space to adequately contain everybody and have all the religious ceremonies at the same time,” he said.

What would Constantine, the first Roman emperor to convert to Christianity, think of the Holy Land’s three Christmases? He sent his mother and money to Palestine to build the massive Church of the Nativity over the grotto where tradition says that Jesus was born, and in AD325 assigned December 25 to be Christmas Day. Because Jesus’s birth date is absent in the New Testament and early Church records, Constantine designated the feast day of Mithras, December 25, which is also around the time of the winter solstice, as the symbolic date.

As Jesus said “I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness.”

Constantine chose one day, not three.

This article first appeared in the December 23 2016 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here