Many people, on taking up the study of icons, quickly encounter a problem. They find that today there are often two dates used for the commemoration of each saint, and even two dates listed for the celebration of Christmas. If we look into the history of Christmas, we soon find the reason for this.
The celebration of the Nativity of Jesus — Christmas — came rather late in the history of early Christianity. In fact it seems to have begun just about the time Christianity became legalized in the Roman Empire and adopted as the State religion. So we can say that according to available evidence, the celebration of Christmas seems to have begun during or shortly after the life of the Roman Emperor Constantine, in the 4th century c.e.
It also appears that the reason the date for the celebration of Christmas was placed on December 25th is that it was already a very popular non-Christian celebration, the Birthday of the Unconquered Sun. That occurred on the Winter Solstice, which in those days was intended to be on December 25th. So that gives us our marker. Originally Christmas was celebrated on (or close to) the Winter Solstice in the Roman Empire, taking over an already existing non-Christian festival.
In those days there was no formal split between the Greek Eastern branch of the church and the Latin western branch. Both celebrated Christmas on the same day, December 25th. And even after the Great Schism that divided the two branches in 1054, both churches, Eastern Greek and Western Latin, continued to celebrate the Nativity on December 25th. That is because both still used the old Roman Julian Calendar.
There was, however, a serious flaw in the Julian Calendar. Every year it would inaccurately be off by another eleven minutes. That did not matter much at the beginning of its use, but after the passage of 134 years, all those accumulations of 11-minute error added up to the Julian Calendar being a full day off. Every 134 years, it was off by yet another day. So the celebration of Christmas gradually moved farther and farther from the Winter Solstice.
in 1582 Pope Gregory XIII ordered Roman Catholics to use a new and more accurate calendar, generally called the Gregorian Calendar. This was after the Protestant Reformation, so for a while the Gregorian Calendar was only used by Roman Catholics. Eastern Orthodox continued to use the more inaccurate Julian Calendar.
The Gregorian Calendar, unlike the Julian, more closely reflected the natural cycles of the solar year, the spring and autumn equinoxes and the summer and winter solstices. It was not perfect, but compared to the 11 minute inaccuracy per year of the Julian Calendar, the Gregorian inaccuracy was only about 30 seconds per year.
Over time the use of the Gregorian Calendar began to spread even into predominantly Protestant countries.
England adopted the Gregorian Calendar only in 1752. That was some 24 years before America declared its independence, so that meant America went on the Gregorian Calendar as well and has remained on it ever since.
The situation was very different in Russia. It adopted the Gregorian Calendar only after the Revolution, in 1918.
Now, how does all this relate to the date of Christmas? Because in spite of the civil change to the Gregorian Calendar in Russia in 1918, the Russian Orthodox Church continued to use the Julian Calendar for fixed days such as the commemoration of saints and the date of Christmas.
By the year 1900 the Julian Calendar had become off by 13 days through the inherent flaw in that calendar system. That meant that when the Western churches were celebrating Christmas on December 25th, The Russian Orthodox church was celebrating it on what by the modern Gregorian Calendar would be January 7th. Now (and until March of 2100) the Russian Orthodox date of Christmas is thus 13 days behind, meaning 13 days after, the date on which Christmas is celebrated in Europe and America.
Now which is the more accurate date? Well, given that the marker is the Winter Solstice, both are off, because as we have seen, Christmas, in Roman times, was intended to be on the Winter Solstice. Today by the Gregorian Calendar, the Winter Solstice actually happens about four days before Christmas. But the Russian Orthodox Christmas on January 7th is much farther off the mark, being thirteen days beyond the “Western” December 25th date, and even more beyond by the actual Winter Solstice. That is because Russian Orthodoxy still uses the Julian Calendar for the date of Christmas and other fixed festivals.
So that is the answer to why the Russians celebrate Christmas “too late.” But there is another related little mystery associated with the study of icons, and that is the difference in the day on which any given saint is commemorated.
When one looks up such a saint, one often finds a listing like this:
December 4/17 Barbara, Great Martyr
The first date, December 4, is called “New Style” or “New Calendar,” and it follows a 20th-century revision in the Julian Calendar that, at least for now, accords in general with Gregorian calendar dating. The second date, December 17th, is “Old Style,” and follows the old Julian Calendar dating. So when one is looking up an icon saint in the list of daily commemorations and cross-referencing it to the description of the saint in the old podlinniki, the painter’s manuals, one must be careful to use the “Old Style” (old Julian Calendar) date and not the “New Style” (Revised Julian Calendar) date.
To confuse matters even more, now some segments of Eastern Orthodoxy use the “New Calendar” for saints and fixed festivals, while others continue to use the “Old Calendar.” That is why many Eastern Orthodox churches now print their yearly church calendars giving the commemoration days in both “Old Style” and “New Style.”
This is only one of the confusing matters relating to dates that a student of icons will encounter. I will save the others for future postings.