Christmas in January

Juneau's Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas today

Posted: Tuesday, January 07, 2003

For Richard Dauenhauer and some other Juneau residents, the holiday most Christians celebrated as Christmas two weeks ago was "just another day."

Dauenhauer is a member of the Orthodox Church in America. Today, for the first time in 12 years, Orthodox Christians in Juneau celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ according to the Julian calendar, which places Dec. 25 two weeks after it falls on the Gregorian calendar, the one that designates today as Jan. 7.

"It's a little bit confusing," Dauenhauer said.

The Julian calendar was used by most Christian churches until the 16th century, when Pope Gregory XIII asked astronomers to create a new calendar accounting for extra hours that aren't included in a 365-day year.

The astronomers suggested adding an extra day to the calendar every four years, creating what now is known as a leap year. By the time astronomers corrected the calendar, Dec. 25, which originally fell four days after the winter solstice, was falling 10 days before the solstice.

When the new Gregorian calendar was implemented, most countries simply dropped 10 days from the calendar, so Dec. 25, Christmas, would once again fall four days after solstice.

Some Orthodox churches, though, of which there are 15 branches worldwide, chose to stay on the Julian calendar. For those churches, the gap between the Julian Christmas and the solstice continues to grow.

Though the Orthodox Church in America adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1981, the Orthodox Church in Alaska always has been on the Julian calendar, said Bishop Nikolai, Bishop of Sitka, Anchorage and Alaska.

"The majority of Orthodox Christians are on the old calendar," he said. "That was the original calendar, when the Russians came here."

Orthodox Christian missionaries from Russia were the first Christians in the state, Bishop Nikolai said. Alaska has 20,000 members of the Orthodox Church in 92 parishes.

Unlike other churches in the state, the St. Nicholas Church in Juneau voted 12 years ago to follow the Gregorian calendar, which allowed Juneau's Orthodox Christians to celebrate Christmas with other Christians in town, Dauenhauer said.

"Simply because it's the capital, and sometimes it's hard to take time off," he explained. "Stores and businesses are going full-blast in January."

When Bishop Nikolai was installed as archbishop in Alaska in March 2002, he ordered the St. Nicholas Church to return to the Julian calendar and celebrate Christmas Jan. 7 with the rest of Alaska's Orthodox Christians.

"Some people like it, some people don't," Dauenhauer said. "Some people like it for nostalgic reasons. The Orthodox church is very traditional."

Exact church membership figures aren't available, but 40 to 50 people worship in the church on any given Sunday.

Though Orthodox Christians exchange gifts and have a Christmas feast, some differences exist between the Orthodox and other Christian traditions.

Many Orthodox Christians abstain from meat for 40 days preceding the holiday. Some Orthodox Christians host a traditional meal with 12 vegetarian dishes on Christmas Eve, each dish representing one of the 12 apostles, Dauenhauer said.

On Christmas day, Orthodox Christians go "starring," or caroling, from house to house or, in some cases in Western Alaska, from village to village, Bishop Nikolai said. The activity is called starring because the carolers often follow a leader holding a wooden star. Church members sing traditional songs, talk about the holiday and socialize at each house they visit.

Starring begins on Christmas night and could take place every night until the Theophany, the day celebrating the baptism of Christ, known as the Epiphany to western Christians. On the Julian calendar, Theophany falls on Jan. 19.

Orthodox Christians in Juneau will go starring to the homes of some church members, as well as to nursing homes, Dauenhauer said.

The carolers will follow two wooden stars, one made in Juneau and one made in Western Alaska. They will sing songs in English, some Slavonic languages and Tlingit, Dauenhauer said.

Services at the St. Nicholas Church were held at 6 p.m. Monday and at 10 a.m. today. The church will hold vespers, an evening service, at 6 p.m. today and begin starring after the service.

On Wednesday a service will be held at 9 a.m. to celebrate the feast of the Virgin Mary. A ceremony at 9 a.m. on Thursday will celebrate the feast of St. Steven.

Christine Schmid can be reached at cschmid@juneauempire.com.

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