Photo: The Russian Orthodox Church follows the Julian calendar for its Christmas celebrations. (Flickr: Saint-Petersburg Theological Academy)
In some Eastern European and Middle Eastern countries Christmas is officially celebrated on January 7.
That is because many Orthodox Christian churches follow the Julian calendar for religious celebrations.
The Julian calendar runs 13 days behind the Gregorian calendar, the standard international calendar in use today.
"When we open the church calendar on January 7, we're actually looking at the date December 25," Father Alexander Morozow of the Russian Orthodox Church in Canberra said.
"So we still have that same date, we're just using a calendar that hasn't caught up.
"It's like a clock that's running 13 days slow."
Photo: Russian Orthodox Christians attend church services on Christmas eve and Christmas day. (Flickr: Saint-Petersburg Theological Academy)
The Julian calendar took effect under the reign of Julius Caesar in 45BC.
In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII created a new calendar to correct the discrepancy between calendar time and calculated astronomical time. It became known as the Gregorian calendar.
But to begin with only Catholic countries adopted the changes and Orthodox Christian countries remained on the Julian calendar.
Over time, those countries adopted the Gregorian calendar for secular use but the Orthodox churches continued to base their liturgical calendar on the Julian timetable.
In 1923 a revised version of the Julian calendar was introduced bringing Christmas Day in line with the Gregorian calendar, but it was only adopted by some of the Orthodox Christian countries including Greece, Cyprus and Romania.
Russia, Ukraine, Serbia, Belarus, Egypt, Ethiopia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Macedonia, Moldova and Montenegro continue to celebrate Christmas on January 7.
Photo: Orthodox Christians in Serbia burn dried oak branches which symbolise the Yule log on Orthodox Christmas Eve. (Reuters: Marko Djurica)
Traditional differences and Lent
Many Orthodox and western Christmas traditions are the same, like Christmas trees, gift giving and carols.
But one point of difference is the period leading up to Christmas.
"We're used to here [in Australia] having the lead up to Christmas as a time of celebration, with Christmas parties and things like that," Father Morozow said.
"Whereas in the east, in the Orthodox church, that's a time of preparation and the celebration really starts from Christmas and goes onwards."
Photo: Children dress in traditional costume and sing carols as part of Orthodox Christmas celebrations in the Ukraine. (Reuters: Valentyn Ogirenko)
For most Orthodox Christians, Christmas is the beginning of celebrations after 40 days of Lent.
"Those who observe Lent don't eat meat or dairy foods for that period," Father Morozow said.
"So on Christmas Day they tuck into all the things that haven't been on the menu for the previous six weeks."
While each Orthodox Christian country has its own unique traditions, they all include church services and great feasts.
Many have their own version of Santa Claus too, like in Russia where Ded Moroz (Grandfather Frost) and his granddaughter Snegurochka (Snow Maiden) deliver presents to the children.
Photo: Ded Moroz and his grand-daughter Snegurochka bring presents to children at Christmas. (Wikimedia Commons)
Father Morozow expects that one day all the Orthodox churches will update their calendars, but for now he said celebrating Christmas on January 7 had its benefits.
"Having Christmas on January 7 makes it easier to have a church feast day.
"The increasingly commercial elements and last-minute buying presents over this period are sort of swept over us and we can concentrate on the spiritual dimension of Christmas."
Topics: christianity, religion-and-beliefs, human-interest, community-and-multicultural-festivals, canberra-2600, act, australia, serbia, russian-federation, ukraine, ethiopia, egypt