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Orthodox Christmas: When It’s Celebrated, History, and Holiday Traditions


Orthodox Christmas is one of the most important holidays for many people in Eastern Europe, Africa, and Asia. Here’s a guide on the history and traditions.

Orthodox Christmas has a lot in common with Western Christmas
Taken by S. Patel via unsplash.com. [Public Domain].

When Is Orthodox Christmas Celebrated?

One of the main differences between Orthodox Christmas and Christmas in Western countries that stands out for anyone is the date it is celebrated on. The explanation is rather simple: it is celebrated using a different calendar.

For church holidays in Orthodox Christianity, the old Julian calendar introduced by Julius Caesar in 45 BCE is used, which is also simply called “old style.” In the Julian calendar, the 25th of December falls on the 7th of January, which is why it is being celebrated on that date. 

Unlike that, by many other religions around the world, Christmas is celebrated using the Gregorian calendar established by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582. 

However, it gets even more complicated: not even all of the various orthodoxes celebrate Christmas on the 7th of January! For example, in Greece, Bulgaria, Cyprus, and Romania, Christmas celebrations are held on the 25th of December. Moreover, in all of the Orthodox countries, there are at least some Catholics and Greek Catholics, so some part of the population might have Christmas at the end of December in their families or communities.

Orthodox Christmas Traditions in Different Countries

Even though many countries in Eastern Europe profess the same religion, Christmas traditions differ in all the countries.

It is common to celebrate Orthodox Christmas on the 7th of January, with festivities starting on the 6th of January. Christmas Eve dinner can be served after the appearance of the first star on the sky, as it heralds the birth of Christ. Traditionally on the table should be present twelve lean dishes, for the number of apostles, and only on the 7th of January the fasting ends. In Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia, it is common to have as one of those dishes kutia, boiled grains mixed with poppy seeds, nuts, raisins, and honey. A similar dish under a different name, koliva, is served in Greece, Bulgaria, Moldova, Romania, and the Balkans. 

Similarly to a Christmas celebration in other countries, Orthodox Christmas Eve is the time when the whole family gathers to spend time together, eat, and have a good time.

Carols are sung in Ukraine on Christmas Eve and Christmas, called koliadky. They can be sung at home after dinner, or carolers can walk on the streets, through Christmas markets, or even stop by your apartment. (Read more about Ukrainian holidays here.)

When you have a Christmas Eve dinner in Bulgaria, it is important to have an odd number of dishes, one of them being a Christmas bread with a baked coin in it. Whoever gets the coin in their piece is believed will have a lucky and prosperous year. (Read more about Bulgarian holidays here.)

Don’t be surprised if in Greece you see a boat decorated with Christmas lights. In some households, there are even small paper or wooden boats with lights or ornaments as their own analog of the Christmas tree.

Talking about unusual Christmas trees, it is definitely worth mentioning chichilaki, a traditional Christmas tree in Georgia. It is made from dry walnut or hazelnut branches that are shaved in a shape that reminds one of a beard. Chichilaki is considered to be a symbol of life, hope, and fertility. (Check out our article on the history of the Christmas tree.)

Christmas In Post-Soviet Countries

In many countries of the former Soviet Union, Christmas is considered to be a religious holiday and is celebrated mostly by believers. This is in stark contrast to the US and Western Europe, where it is one of the main holidays of the year for most people regardless of religious affiliation. 

This shift happened after the October Revolution when the Bolsheviks came to power. Before the revolution, as in the rest of Europe, Christmas was one of the most important holidays, with most people traditionally celebrating it. However, after the Bolsheviks rose to supremacy, all the religious holidays were exterminated, and, of course, Christmas became the most persecuted of them all. In 1929, Christmas in the Soviet Union was officially crossed out from the calendar and canceled. It was almost impossible to buy a fir tree, as everything that could be related to holidays was strictly controlled by the government. 

The situation became better in 1935 when the government of the Soviet Union decided to bring back the tradition of winter’s holiday celebration, however, with a twist. Instead of celebrating the birth of Christ, they celebrated New Year’s Day, with many attributes of the forbidden Christmas but no church implications. For instance, the tradition of the Christmas tree was revived, however, on top of it, instead of the Star of Bethlehem, there was placed a red communist star symbol. After some years, it became a new tradition, so even now, long after the Soviet Union collapsed, people are torn between those two holidays and each person chooses themselves which one to celebrate, and, if both, which should be of most importance.

Mariia Kislitsyna
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Mariia Kislitsyna
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