December 25 or January 7? Settling the Byzantine Christmas date controversy.

byzantine candles

Some of you may know that I run the Twitter account CryForByzantium, which presents the history of the Byzantine Empire one tweet at a time. Many of the individual tweets contain dates, such as “7 August 626. Just got a report that Patrician Bonus set a brilliant ambush for the Persian and Avar ships…” I think this is necessary in presenting historical tweets.

Often, the Emperor “speaking” on CryForByzantium will mention Christmas. Almost invariably when a Byzantine tweet goes out mentioning December 25 as the date of Christmas, I will get an @ reply or a direct message from someone claiming that I’ve made a mistake–that the Byzantines, being Greek Orthodox, celebrated Christmas on January 7, not December 25. This is quite a common impression, but actually it’s wrong. They really did celebrate Christmas on December 25, from almost the very beginning of Byzantine history.

The confusion stems from two issues. The first is that Christmas was not the only religious holiday the Greek Orthodox Church celebrates in connection with the birth of Jesus, nor is it the most important. The more important holiday is Epiphany, which is traditionally celebrated on January 6. However, it’s important to recognize that Epiphany commemorates the baptism of Christ and the visit of the Magi, not the physical birth of Christ, which was believed since Roman times to have occurred on December 25. (Whether that date is accurate as a matter of historical fact is an entirely different issue).

In fact, Justinian I, who ruled from 527 to 565 A.D., officially set the date of Christmas as a civic holiday in the Byzantine Empire on December 25, where it had already been traditionally celebrated for a long time. Christmas was the beginning of a season of religious holidays and feasts, climaxing with Epiphany on January 6 (sometimes January 7). Figuring the actual dates of religious feast days is notoriously complex, and was even more so in the Middle Ages.

justinian big

 Who says Christmas is December 25? Justinian does. Just accept it.

The second issue that makes people think the Byzantines celebrated Christmas on January 7 is the fact that some Greek Orthodox today do. This is, of course, because some Orthodox churches still use the old Julian calendar, which is (depending on how you figure it) 11 to 13 days behind the Gregorian calendar. Thus, what is December 25 on that calendar is often January 7 on the new calendar. Thus, Christmas “occurs” in January.

But this was not true in Byzantine times. The Gregorian calendar was not even introduced until 1582, more than a century after Byzantium fell to the Turks. The Julian calendar was the only calendar around during the Byzantine era. (Yes, it is true that the Byzantines counted years differently than the Julian calendar–and that their year began on September 1, not January 1–but they counted days and months the same way people did in Rome).

Therefore, if you went back in time and asked someone who lived in Constantinople in, say, 700 A.D. what day Christmas was, he or she would always tell you it was December 25.

Case closed…I hope!

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6 Comments

  1. If I’m understanding you correctly The Byzantines celebrated Christmas on December 25, but not on what would be “our” December 25. Therefore we would still be celebrating on different days. As an aside, in theory if not in practice, the Catholic church also considers Epiphany the more important date since it was the first recognition of Christ by non Jews. Easter is more important than either since in the words of Paul: “If Christ is not raised your faith is worthless.”

    1. I think you misunderstood what I’m saying. The Byzantines celebrated Christmas on December 25. The difference (if there was one) between “their” December 25 and “our” December 25 did not even arise until 1582, more than 100 years after the Byzantine Empire fell. So, for all intents and purposes, there is no difference, at least not one that has any meaning today.

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