Julian calendar

Once again in Royal David's City: Journalists still confused about Christmas who, what, when, where ...

Once again in Royal David's City: Journalists still confused about Christmas who, what, when, where ...

So journalists: When is Christmas in the ancient city of Bethlehem?

Obviously, for many people, Christmas is on Dec. 25th. That's when you'll see television coverage of people singing carols, in English for the most part, in Bethlehem Square. Often, reports will include a glimpse of the Midnight Mass in the modern Franciscan sanctuary known as the Church of St. Catherine.

Next door to this Catholic church is the ancient Church of the Nativity, an Eastern Orthodox sanctuary built with its altar directly above the grotto in which church traditions says Jesus of Nazareth was born.

So, journalists: When is Christmas celebrated at this very symbolic altar?

The answer, of course, is that Christmas is on Jan. 7, for most (but not all) Eastern Orthodox Christians -- those who follow the older Julian calendar. This includes millions of believers in places like Russia, Egypt, Eastern Europe and, yes, Jerusalem and the Palestinian territories. For more information on this, see my 2015 post: "Washington Post covers first of Bethlehem's two (yes, two) Christmas celebrations."

Year after year, journalists cover the events of Dec. 24-25, while ignoring those on Jan. 6-7. This is most strange if the goal is to (a) cover the current state of Christianity in Bethlehem and the  surrounding region and (b) to use Bethlehem tourism as a way to gauge the impact of economic trends and violence in the Holy Land. Like it or not, Russia (and Eastern Europeans) have strong ties to the ancient churches of the Middle East and many believers in the East like to make pilgrimages to these holy sites, while following the Julian liturgical calendar.

The Los Angeles Times recently published a Christmas in Bethlehem story that was, in many ways, business as usual. The good news: This feature showed evidence that Orthodox churches exist. The bad news: The editors of this story still seem to be in the dark when it comes to knowing the details of Bethlehem's two Christmas celebrations (including which church is which and the precise location of the grotto).

The story focuses on Father Hanna Mass’ad, a Catholic priest, and his short Mass in the grotto. Why is the Mass so short? Why the rush? Read this carefully:

Please respect our Commenting Policy

New York Times pays timely visit to ancient, threatened home of the real St. Nicholas

New York Times pays timely visit to ancient, threatened home of the real St. Nicholas

Let us now pause to offer a word of thanksgiving and modest praise for a New York Times story about religion.

Of course, this particular news report has nothing to do with sexuality or religious liberty, so the editorial bar was set a bit lower. However, this story does have a few kind words to say about Russian Orthodox believers, which is a kind a miracle in and of itself right now.

The dateline for this report is the city of Demre, in southern Turkey, between the Mediterranean Sea and the Taurus Mountains. In other words, this comes from a region that is absolutely crucial to the history of the early church and the people of the New Testament, although most readers (the story takes this into account) would not know that. 

The headline focuses on an all-to-often overlooked hero of the Christian faith: "In Turkey’s Home of St. Nick, Far From North Pole, All Is Not Jolly."

Now, why is this story appearing in the Times on Dec. 19th? I would assume that this is because a Times correspondent noted an increase in the number of Christians coming to Demre for events celebrating the life and faith of St. Nicholas of Myra.

But why Dec. 19th? The story never tells us why.

This raises an interesting question: Does the reporter, or the Times copy desk, even realize that Dec. 19th is the Feast of St. Nicholas, according to the ancient Julian calendar used by the Orthodox Church in Russia and in many other Eastern lands? In the West, the feast of St. Nicholas -- with its emphasis on almsgiving for the poor and small gifts (think chocolates wrapped to look like gold coins) -- is celebrated on Dec. 6th, on the newer Gregorian calendar.

But let's look at a key summary of facts early in this story:

Yes, Virginia, you heard that right, Santa Claus is from Turkey. But this year, Christmastime in Demre is far from cheery.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Washington Post covers first of Bethlehem's two (yes, two) Christmas celebrations

Washington Post covers first of Bethlehem's two (yes, two) Christmas celebrations

Let's settle one issue first. I am well aware that for most of the world's Christians, Christmas is celebrated on the 25th day of December. The season then continues for the next 12 days, but that's another story (as the one and only M.Z. Hemingway reminds us).

However, there are millions of Eastern Orthodox Christians located in strategic places -- think Egypt, Russia, the Slavic countries -- who celebrate Christmas on the 7th of January. Click here to see a helpful map at The Telegraph offering the details. (Clarification from a reader: Most parishes in Greece now use the 25th of December, but there are old-calendar parishes there, too. The map is inaccurate on that point.)

Why is this? Well churches in the West use the calendar proposed by Pope Gregory in 1582. Most of the world's Orthodox churches remain on the Julian calendar, which dates back to 45 B.C. (It does confuse things a bit that, in the United States, most Orthodox churches celebrate Christmas on December 25 -- but stay on the old calendar for Pascha, which is the Orthodox name for Easter).

I needed to remind readers about these basic facts -- which are known to all experienced religion-beat writers -- because this is the time when news organizations start covering one of the season's basic stories, which is the sad state of Christmas in the city of Bethlehem itself, located on the tense West Bank.

The headline on the Washington Post piece is typical: "Violence makes for a somber Christmas in Bethlehem this year." Tragically, you could use that headline almost every year and it would be accurate.

The story gets the politics of this story right, of course. The problem -- surprise -- is that key religious facts are missing or are messed up. Here is how the story starts out:

BETHLEHEM, West Bank -- The city celebrated as the birthplace of Jesus is usually filled with parades and parties this time of year. There are fireworks, carolers, feasts. Revelers drink a little wine. They dance.
This year? It’s not exactly like Christmas was canceled, but it is a somber, dutiful affair.

Please respect our Commenting Policy