Happy (Old) New Year!

January 14

Happy New Year!

It’s January 1 in the Orthodox Calendar, observed by Orthodox Churches in Russia, Macedonia, Serbia, and many of the former Soviet Republics, including Ukraine, Armenia, Belarus, and the one that’s all consonants. (Kryrrrgyztyrgystan)

So is Russia two weeks behind the times? Do they feel the need to have the last word on New Year’s Eve parties? Or does being torn between two New Year’s dates simply give them the chance to party for two full weeks?…(which the Russian winter could definitely use.)

Russian New Year

The story goes that up until the late tenth century, much of Russia and Byzantium celebrated the New Year during the spring equinox. That changed in 988 AD when Basil the “Bulgar-slayer” Porphyrogenitus* introduced the Byzantine Calendar to the Eastern Roman Empire.

Basil II
Basil II

The Byzantine Calendar was like the Julian Calendar except it began on September 1, and its “Year One” was 5509 BC—the year historians calculated as the creation of the world (Anno Mundi) according to genealogies of the Bible, from Adam to Jesus.

It took roughly four centuries for the “September 1st” New Year to make its way into the heart of Russia. And just when the Russians were getting used to that, Peter the Great switched to the Julian Calendar, moving New Year’s to January 1 in 1700 AD.

It was only a matter of 50 years until all of Protestant Europe stopped using the Julian Calendar altogether, in favor of the Catholic Europe’s Gregorian Calendar, leaving Russia and the Orthodox Church out in the cold.

So for the next two-hundred years, even though Russia celebrated New Year’s on January 1st according to their calendar, their entire calendar was about 11-13 days behind the rest of the West. (Which is why the Russian October Revolution took place in November.)

It wasn’t until 1918 that Lenin finally moved Russia to the Gregorian calendar.

But the Soviet Union couldn’t let sleeping dogs lie. During the 1930s they declared war on the number 7, dividing months into five six-day weeks. Fortunately, this decade-long practical joke on the Russian people ended in June 1940.

Soviet Calendar of 1933
Soviet Calendar of 1933

These days, when it comes to the Old Calendar vs. the New Calendar, the Russians have tossed aside their austere ways and say, “Why choose? Have both!”

Most New Year celebrations happen on December 31st, but the holiday season continues until January 14. It’s a day of nostalgia, called Old New Year, a more sedate version of New New Year, often spent with family and watching the 1975 classic “Irony of Fate”, the Russian “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

"Irony of Fate" poster
"Irony of Fate" poster

Julian Day

Today we also celebrate day 2,454,846 in the Julian Day system—the number of days that have passed since noon, Greenwich Mean Time, January 1, 4713 BC. The Julian Day system was developed by Joseph Scalizer in 1582, and is used mainly by astronomers and people with way too much time on their hands.

*Basil’s title Porphyrogenitus means “born in the purple”. The title was bestowed at birth upon children who were (1) born to a reigning Emperor and Empress of the Byzantine Empire, and (2) born in the free-standing Porphyry (purple) Chamber in the Great Palace of Constantinople. (That’s why there’s less Porphygenituses than Smiths.)

Russian New Year

Happy Old New Year

Russian Orthodox Calendar

St. Elias & Ilinden

August 2-3 (Gregorian) every year; July 20 (O.S.)

The traditional feast day for the saint known as Elijah, Elias, or Ilya is July 20. In and around the Balkan states where St. Elias is most venerated, July 20 in the Eastern Orthodox Calendar falls on August 2 in the Gregorian.

In the Old Testament, Elijah is the Hebrew prophet who rode to heaven in a chariot and who would come back to earth to foretell the coming of the Messiah. He could make fire fall from the sky, as in the case of the showdown at Mt. Carmel, which is how he came to be associated with thunder and lightning among formerly pagan cultures of South-eastern Europe.

In the New Testament, Elijah is one of the prophets—along with Moses—that Peter sees talking with Christ during the Transfiguration. The New Testament also describes St. John the Baptist as an incarnation of Elijah, who came back to announce the coming of Christ.

Elijah’s Greek translation “Elias” suggests the prophet may be a form of the Greek sun god Helios. Helios drove the sun across the sky in a chariot.

Elijah taken to heaven in a chariot
Elias taken to heaven in a chariot

Elias is especially revered in the countries of Macedonia and Bulgaria, where he’s also known as St. Ilya.

In many of the villages of old Macedonian Bulgaria, all the weddings for each town that year would take place on the same day. The most popular days for weddings were St. Peter’s Day (June 29), the Assumption (August 15) and, July 20, St. Elias’s Day, or Ilinden.

“After the conclusion of the liturgy, the oldest inhabitant, flanked by the village priest and the headman, would go to the centre of the village, call the young men together and declare: “God willing, the weddings will commence’. Everyone present then fired a few shots into the air to confirm the start of the wedding ceremonies. This was the signal for red wedding banners, topped with apples wrapped in gold foil, to be hoisted on the houses where weddings had been arranged. The customary preliminary rituals, lasting the best part of a week, were performed by each family individually, but all the couples, with their respective entourages, went to the church to be married one after the other on the same Sunday, and then all assembled on the village green, where they danced the horo together before returning to their separate homes to feast and to carry out the remaining rituals.”

Bulgarian Folk Customs, Mercia MacDermott (summarizing Stefan Verkovich’s account of Ilinden in A Description of the Way of Life of the Macedonian Bulgarians)

In the early years of the 20th century the saint’s feast acquired a whole new meaning. Macedonia at that time was still under control of the Ottoman Empire. In 1903 Macedonian insurgents planned and launched a widespread uprising beginning on Ilinden (August 2, Gregorian). Though the Turks put down the insurrection the following month, the Ilinden Uprising became a symbol of Macedonian nationalism.