Well, Christmas is almost here (on the New Calendar, anyway), so we’re planning out how many days of ham we’re going to be eating, right? Or perhaps it’s several days of turkey leftovers. You’ve got to be able to cover every day of Christmas so that we’re not just singing Christmas but also eating it for the whole festal period.
But we have a problem. How many days do we have to cover? Just how many days are there in Orthodox Christmas, anyway? We will have been fasting for 40 days, so what do we get on the other end?
Well, we begin on Dec. 25, and the leave-taking of the feast is Dec. 31, so one could say that there are 7 days in Orthodox Christmas.
But of course, the fast-free days last through Jan. 4, so one could say that there are 11 days in Orthodox Christmas, even though we will have ceased singing the Christmas hymns 4 days before.
But some people include Jan. 5, which is the Eve of Theophany, so one could say that there are 12 days in Orthodox Christmas. They probably do this because they heard there is such a thing as “12 Days of Christmas.” But there’s not really anything about Jan. 5 on the liturgical calendar that looks that much like Christmas.
One could also say that there are 12 days of Orthodox Christmas if one counts the 5 days of forefeast (Dec. 20-24), the feast day itself (Dec. 25) and the 6 days of afterfeast (Dec. 26-31). But the forefeast isn’t the feast. So that’s cheating.
Some people take Christmas all the way to the feast of the Meeting of the Lord in the Temple on Feb. 2, so that’s 40 days of Christmas right there. Write that one into a song! (“On the thirty-eighth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me…” *collapse*)
And some people think Orthodox Christmas is on Jan. 7, which just sets all these things forward by 13 days (right?). Of course, no Orthodox Christian celebrates Christmas on Jan. 7. (Say it with me: No one celebrates Christmas on Jan. 7.) They all celebrate on Dec. 25. Yet some people’s calendars will say “Jan. 7” on that day because they are celebrating on the Julian (“Old”) calendar Dec. 25, but they are apparently dating their holidays by what the Revised Julian (“New”) or Gregorian (“New”) calendar read on those days, which is 13 days ahead—thus, Jan. 7.
But remember, if you’re celebrating Christmas on the Julian calendar, it’s not Jan. 7 for you. It’s Dec. 25. It turns out that there are two different Dec. 25s in the Orthodox Church, thirteen days apart.
And the Non-Chalcedonians are another matter entirely. Most of them don’t have a December or a January. They have other month names that don’t line up exactly with our Roman month names. For instance, the Copts celebrate Christmas on 29 Koiak (which lines up with Jan. 7 on the new calendars but Dec. 25 on the old).
And some people think Orthodox Christmas is on Jan. 6, probably because they are mixing up the Jan. 7 thing with Theophany (Jan. 6) or maybe because they once ran into an Armenian Apostolic Christian, who will certainly confuse matters entirely for you, since Armenians celebrate both Christmas and Theophany together on Jan. 6, only some people’s calendars will say “Jan. 19” (go back two paragraphs for why that is) on that day, depending on whether you’re talking to an Armenian in Jerusalem or not. Then again, the Armenian calendar doesn’t exactly have a “January.”
(And yes, of course there are a handful Western Rite parishes in Orthodoxy. I love them and their traditions. They have 12 days of Christmas, I believe. But I am generalizing about the other 99.99%.)
And then some people celebrate on both Dec. 25 (Dec. 25) and Dec. 25 (Jan. 7). They are wrong. (Mostly kidding. They can do what they like, even if it doesn’t make sense to me.) But we still are planning on inviting them over for dinner. (Not kidding.)
So what’s the answer?