Here’s one Christmas surprise you didn’t expect: Christmas is actually on January 7. At least it is for some 200 million Eastern Orthodox Christians worldwide. Unlike the Western Church—made up of Protestants and Catholics—traditional Eastern Christians follow the old Julius Caesar calendar, which is currently 13 days behind the more modern Gregorian version. This means that their “Dec. 25” falls on our Jan. 7.
(PHOTOS: It Happened on Christmas Day)
The Eastern Christmas however differs beyond just the date—religious observance edges out Frosty and Santa. For 40 days before Christmas, Eastern Christians fast and pray, much like Lent before Easter. Instead of presents, religious traditions are the central focus. Members of the Ethiopian Orthodox church, for example, process through the streets on Christmas Eve, Jan. 6, and gather to retell the Christmas story. Children run around as the sheep and men sometimes even dress like the Sudan People’s Liberation Army to represent King Herod’s soldiers. In Russia, the Orthodox enjoy a midnight mass where incense and liturgy fill their onion-domed churches. Many Orthodox Christians in America now devote Jan. 6-7 to religious celebration and leave all present-exchanges to the more culturally accepted Dec. 25.
This year even Western Christians are having a difficult time figuring out when to celebrate. Ironically, that’s because Dec. 25 falls on a Sunday in 2011. That should make it easy—after all, Christmas is at heart a religious holiday—but some Protestant churches say the day should make room for the early morning’s traditional present-fest. Some 90% of churches will still have a church service, according to a LifeWay Research study, yet many are moving worship times to the evening or focusing instead on a Christmas Eve service.
Don’t forget that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter–day Saints also celebrates Christmas on December 25. Christmas Eve carol services, however, are not staples of Mormon celebrations like they are in Protestant churches. Instead, Mormon traditions include watching the LDS’ annual “First Presidency Christmas Devotional” and visiting the decorated Temple Square in Salt Lake City. The Mormon Temple outside Washington boasts half a million lights at the annual December Festival of Lights. A life-size outdoor nativity scene and hand-bell and choral performances resemble those of most Christian mega-churches’ during the holiday season.