Orthodox Procession in Moscow

Many Orthodox Christians celebrate their patron saint’s day rather than their birthday. If someone is named George they have a party on St. George's feast day.

Russians celebrate four major holidays around Christmas time: Christmas (or "Catholic Christmas" as it is known in Russia), New Year's Day (usually celebrated on New Year's Eve), Orthodox Christmas and Orthodox New Year's.

The Feast of the Transfiguration is also celebrated by Orthodox Christians with great fanfare. It commemorates the vision seen by the disciples of the resurrected Christ and also the transfigured Mount, which revealed the sacred beauty of the universe.

Websites and Resources Orthodox Church in America oca.org/saints/lives ; Online Orthodox Catechism published by the Russian Orthodox Church orthodoxeurope.org ; Internet Sourcebook sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; BBC on Orthodox Christian bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/christianity ; Christian Answers christiananswers.net ; Christian Classics Ethereal Library www.ccel.org ; Sacred Texts website sacred-texts.com ; Christianity.com christianity.com/church/denominations ; Christianity Comparison Charts religionfacts.com ; Difference between Christian Denominations Quoracom ;

Orthodox Calendar

The Orthodox Church observes the Julian calendar instead of the Gregorian calendar, which is used by Catholics, Protestants and most people in the modern world. The Julian calendar holidays are 13 days later than holidays on the Gregorian calendar. The Julian calendar was authorized by Julius Caesar in 46 B.C., and replaced by the Gregorian calendar, created in 1582.

The Julian calendar, established in 46. B.C. by Julius Caesar and worked out by the Alexandrian astronomer Sosgenes, had 12 months, 365 days and one leap day every four years between February 23 and February 24. It was only 11 minutes and 14 seconds out of synch with the actual solar year (one revolution of the earth around the sun). Initially Romans read Caesar's edict for the new system wrong and leap day occurred every third year. Augustus rectified the error in 8 B.C.

Orthodox Christmas in Poland

The 11 minutes and 14 second error may not seem like much but over hundreds of years it adds up. By Columbus's time, the vernal equinox was occurring on March 11th instead of March 21st and farmers no longer relied on the calendar for planting and harvesting their crops. In 1582 the Julian calendar was updated and replaced by the Gregorian calendar devised by Pope Gregory XIII.

Pope Gregory XIII (1502-1585) is the pope who gave us the Gregorian calendar that we use today. When he took over the papacy the Julian calendar was 11 days off out of sync with the seasons. In 1582, Pope Gregory inaugurated the calendar that would bear his name by ordaining that the day after October 4 was October 15. This aligned the seasons with the calendar but caused an uproar among servants who demanded a full month's wage but were refused it by their employers. The Gregory calendar also started the year on January 1st. To make sure the seasons and dates stayed aligned, leap years were omitted from years marking the beginning of a century. The calendar we follow today is virtually the same as the Gregorian calendar except from time to time top international time keeping bodies add a leap second to ensure that the time kept on earth is aligned with cosmos. ["The Discoveres" by Daniel Boorstien]

As a statement against the power of the Roman church some groups refused to go along with the Gregorian calendar. The eastern Orthodox Church held on to the Julian calendar for its calculations of Eastern Orthodox holidays. Russian didn't stop using the Julian calendar until the Bolshevik revolution in 1917. Many Eastern Orthodox churches have adopted the Gregorian calendar for Christmas and the Pentecost but continue to use the Julian calendar for Easter. For monks at Mount Athos and other monasteries the day begins at sunset.

According to the BBC: “After World War I various Orthodox Churches, beginning with the Patriarchate of Constantinople, began to abandon the Julian calendar or Old Calendar, and adopt a form of the Gregorian calendar or New Calendar. The Julian calendar is, at the present time, thirteen days behind the Gregorian Calendar. Today, many Orthodox Churches (with the exception of Jerusalem, Russia, Serbia, and Mount Athos) use the New, Gregorian Calendar for fixed feasts and holy days but the Julian calendar for Easter and movable feasts. In this way all the Orthodox celebrate Easter together. The Orthodox Church calendar begins on September 1st and ends on August 31st. Each day is sacred: each is a saint's day, so at least one saint is venerated daily.” [Source: BBC, June 11, 2008]

Eastern Orthodox and Catholic-Protestant dates for Easter

Orthodox Christmas

Orthodox Christmas falls on January 7th. Orthodox Christians believe that Christ is reborn every Christmas and an empty chair is set for him next to the fireplace in the home. Sometimes hay is thrown on the floor to create the Bethlehem manger. Epiphany on January 6th commemorates the day that Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River. Orthodox Christians place great significance of Christ’s baptism because he sanctified water by his sacramental washing in the Jordan.

According to the BBC: “Christmas is celebrated by Orthodox Christians in Central and Eastern Europe and throughout the world on the 7th of January in the Gregorian Calendar - 13 days after other Christians. In the East, Christmas is preceded by a 40 day fast beginning on November 15th. This is a time of reflection, self-restraint and inner healing in the sacrament of confession. Usually, on Christmas Eve, observant Orthodox Christians fast till late evening, until the first star appears. When the star is seen, people lay the table ready for the Christmas supper. [Source: BBC, June 11, 2008 |::|]

“On Christmas Day people take part in divine liturgy, after which many walk in procession to seas, rivers and lakes. Everyone gathers around in the snow for outdoor ceremonies to bless the water. Sometimes rivers are frozen, so people make holes in the ice to bless the water. Some take water home to bless their houses. Then a great feast is held indoors where everyone joins in to eat, drink and enjoy themselves. A Orthodox Russian custom is to serve Christmas cakes and to sing songs. The tradition is mixed with other pagan traditions of ancient Russia such that people may visit their neighbours in disguises, dance, sing and ask for presents, similar to trick-or-treating. |::|

“There are similarities, as well as differences, between the Eastern and Western celebration of Christmas. The Eastern Christmas has a very strong family and social appeal just as it does in the West. It brings people of all generations together to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. Unlike the West, where Christmas ranks supreme, in the East it is Easter, centred on the cross and the resurrection of Christ, which is the supreme festival of the year. Eastern Orthodox Christmas also lacks the commercial side that is typical of the West.” |::|

Christmas Time Celebrations

Orthodox Christmas in the Ukraine

St. Nikolas Day on December 6th in Greece is a Christmas celebration featuring children making the rounds singing Christmas carols accompanied by tin drums and tinkling triangles. This continues until December 22nd. On December 23rd children gather in the town squares and dance around bonfires, ringing bells and singing carols. The fire and the bells symbolize the vigil of the shepherds on Christmas night.

Christmas Eve on December 24th is celebrated in Greece similarly to Halloween in the United States. During the evening children go from door to asking from treats often accompanied by their parents. Children are rewarded with sweets, figs and nuts.

Goblins called "Kalikantzari" come to earth for the 12 days of Christmas starting on Christmas Eve. According to an old superstition they roam the countryside at night and force anyone they come in contact with to dance until they drop dead from exhaustion. They can be kept out of the house by keeping the windows tightly shut. Christmas dinner is usually eaten around midnight on Christmas Eve. It features a special Christmas bread sprinkled with cinnamon and cloves called "Christopsomo." A special log sprinkled with nuts and almonds is placed on a hearth to burn for the 12 days of Christmas.

Christmas Day on December 25th is celebrated with more foods including butter cookies called "kourabiedes" and deep fried sweet breads called "loukoumades". Greek families begin the Christmas meal with honey, after which they lift the table three times with their hands and then continue the feast.

Orthodox Christian Easter

Good Friday in Greece

Orthodox Easter is the most important religious holiday of the year for Orthodox Christians. It is the focus of the church year and is celebrated with a festive midnight service Saturday night to usher in Easter day that often last well into Sunday morning. The ceremonies vary from region to region but they usually climax with chants of "Christ is born" and answering calls of "He is born indeed!"

Orthodox Easter is held on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the Mosaic Passover. It falls on a different day, generally about four weeks later, than Catholic and Protestant Easter. Easter is celebrated with a children's mass that replicates the events that took place at the midnight mass for adults the night before.

During the Easter holiday many city people leave the city to return to their ancestral villages. The Ukraine and Russia are famous for their decorated eggs. The famous Faberge eggs are most obvious example of this art from. On Easter red hard boiled eggs are banged together over dinner. You make a wish and if your egg doesn't crack you wish comes true. According to Orthodox teachings, Mary Magdalene first used an egg as a symbol of Christ’s Resurrection. The tradition of exchanging eggs at Easter has endured for centuries.

See Russia

Orthodox Christian Easter Week

Palm Sunday is celebrated throughout Greece with worshipers carrying laurel, myrtle and palm branches to church services. On Corfu the people carry a casket of their patron saint, St. Spiridon, through the streets in a dramatic procession.

Orthodox Palm Sunday has traditionally been a time of the year when Russians visit the graves of deceased relatives and eat cookies and drink vodka at the family plots.

Holy Thursday is when Easter eggs are dyed red which symbolizes the blood of Christ. They are eaten on the feast on Easter Sunday. The streets are usually quiet and deserted. In coffeehouses the jack of spades is sometimes posted warning that merriness is out of order.

Good Friday and Holy Saturday for Orthodox Christians

Good Friday is observed throughout Greece with the procession of the "Epitaph" where devoted followers carry lighted candles and chant laments.The Epitaph, a golden embroidered pall symbolizing the body of Christ, is prepared by being literally smothered with flowers and perfume. The faithful kiss the pall and pass underneath it to be touched by grace. At night a solemn procession led by a priest dressed in black begins and ends at a cemetery. Marching along to slow beats of drums the procession stops at squares and crossroads where short prayers are said. Pictures of loved ones who have died that year are sometimes placed inside wreaths that in turn are sometimes placed on the pall.

Holy Saturday is observed with the ceremony of resurrection held at churches throughout Greece. During the ceremony the church is dimly lit, symbolizing the darkness in the grave. At ten minutes before midnight a priest dressed in scarlet and gold bursts through the door with lighted candle chanting that Christ has risen. In some churches he kicks open the door, symbolizing the dispersal of demons and evil spirits. The members of the church then light their candles off the candle belonging to the priest.

Easter cross procession

When all the candles are lit the congregation enters the streets chanting "Christ has risen" over and over while they swing their candles to the rhythm of tolling church bells. On the streets the people give each other the "kiss of love" while chanting "He has risen indeed." In ports ship blow their whistles.

In many towns children shoot pop guns and fireworks are set off to frighten away the devil (in 1993, on the island of Symi 200 pounds of dynamite was detonated on a cliff above the harbor). Church bells ring and sometimes "Judas" figures are burnt in huge bonfires.

On the way home from church members try not to extinguish their candles. The candle are used trace a cross inside the house and to light a small candle in front of the family alter. At home a special meal is prepared which features eggs boiled in red dye. It is customary to tap eggs with another person. Whoever's egg doesn't crack will have good luck throughout the year.

Lent for Orthodox Christians

Lent is the period of fasting before Easter. Some view it as an effort to relive Jesus's 40-day fast in the wilderness. Orthodox Lent is 50 days long (compared with Catholic Lent, which is 40 days long). All days are days of abstinence, 43 are also fast days. Lent ends around the time that Easter events begin.

Shove Tuesday around March 1st marks the first day of Lent for Greeks. The first day of Lent is welcomed with picnics in the country and kite flying. Special celebrations include a mock shepherd's wedding in Thebes; the "Feast of the Monk" in the village of Agia Eleni (in Serres) with roots in ancient Dionysian revelries; and the ancient tradition of Galaxidi, the blackening of faces with burnt cork.

Dormination of the Virgin Mary


Dormination of the Virgin Mary on August 15 is an important Greek Orthodox holiday dating back to Byzantine times that is celebrated with a procession featuring an icon of the Virgin Mary. Most Byzantine churches celebrate the holiday but the most important ceremony takes place on the island of Tinos at a monastery built near to where an 80 year old nun had a vision of the Virgin Mary.

Every year thousands of pilgrims come from all over Greece for a festival that lasts the entire month of August. The pilgrims receive a blessing in return for a solemn promise or offering. On the 15th the town is deluged with people attending the procession and religious services. In the side streets street fairs are held. A big festival and procession takes place at Voulkano Monastery near Messina in the Peloponnese. The cherished icon of the Virgin Mary is carried from the monastery to the convent on the summit of a mountain. Other celebrations of note are held on the Cyclades islands of Paros and Kynthos and the Dodecanese island of Patmos

Orthodox Christian Pilgrimage

Tinos (6 hours from Piraeus, 1 hour from Mykonos) and the Shrine of the Annunciation is the destination of thousands of pilgrims every year. The story of the Shrine goes something like this: In 1822 the Virgin Mary appeared to an 80-year-old nun named Sister Pelagia, who is now a saint, and told her an icon was buried in a field, where a Temple for Dionysus was once located. The icon was found and a shrine was built on that spot.

Orthodox procession

The "miracle" occurred on the same day as the beginning of the struggle there against the Turks and thus is a national as well as religious symbol. Today the icon is one of the most famous religious objects in Greece and is called "the protectress of Greece." A few miles from the shrine is the nunnery whereSt. Pelagia lived. The simple room, where she had her vision, is on display.

Most pilgrims come on March 15 and August 15, when there is also a festival. Many of them crawl on their hands and knees, with handpads and knee pads, for a quarter of a mile to the church entrance. They then rise to their feet and kiss a jewel-encrusted icon with Mary's face. On the ceiling hangs small silver Orthodox votive offering: arms, hands, torsos, ears, representing afflicted body parts that people want to be healed along with votive boats and trucks.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Sourcebook sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File); “ Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); King James Version of the Bible, gutenberg.org; New International Version (NIV) of The Bible, biblegateway.com; Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL) ccel.org , Frontline, PBS, Wikipedia, BBC, National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Encyclopedia.com, Reuters, Associated Press, Business Insider, AFP, Library of Congress, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2024

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