Christmas among the Eastern Christians

‘It is a complicated scene, and one largely unfamiliar to western Catholics’, writes Peter Costello

Here in Ireland, with the opening of the New Year, we may think that Christmas is now in the past. But for many Christians, especially in the Middle East – whether Orthodox, Oriental, or Eastern – Christmas is yet to come. These traditions celebrate the nativity of Christ on the night of January 6, on what was once called Twelfth Night, or here in Ireland, Nollaig na  mBan.

The difference of dates is often put down to a Papal decree changing the ancient Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar. But this has been disputed by scholars since the earliest times. No matter how it arose, the fact is that the eastern tradition is to celebrate the nativity on a later date than the west.

However, because of the historical background there are none of the old pagan European customs such as a Christmas tree, mistletoe or a Yule log. The traditions of the Middle East must therefore more closely echo those of the very early Christians.

But it also has to be borne in mind that, for Christians in the east of whatever tradition, it is not the nativity of Christ that is vital, important though it is, but the celebration of Easter. To see their customs in their full glory, that is the festival to observe. Come Easter we will return to this.

The customs of the east are not well represented in literature, which is a factor in our lack of wide knowledge of the culture of the Middle East in general.

Marco Polo

It was the great description of the known world by Marco Polo, usually called The Travels of Marco Polo, that brought the exotic wonders of Asia to the attention of the European elite.

This began to circulate in manuscript about 1300. In the early pages of the book, Polo (or rather his amanuensis, the romance writer Rusticello) refers to Mosul in northern Iraq (much in the news lately because of the conflict that rages around there).

Mosul is a large kingdom inhabited by different nations. First, there are those called Arabs, who worship [sic] Mahomet. Then there are people who observe the law of Christ, but not according to the ordinances of the Roman Church, for they are at fault in several points. They are called Nestorian and Jacobites. They have a patriarch, whom they call Catholicus.”

This patriarch makes archbishops, bishops, abbots and prelates of every degree and sends them everywhere, into India, Cathay and Baghdad, just like the Roman Pope. You must understand that all the Christians you will meet in the countries I am describing are Nestorians and Jacobites.

The Jacobite patriarch has his seat near Mosul, and the Catholicus of the Nestorians at Baghdad. Though the Polos were on mission for the Pope, Marco shows little interest in theological niceties on the nature of Christ that lay at the heart of the differences between these groups, among themselves and with Rome. By the way, he classes people in general by their religion or nation. He had no racial prejudice.

The Nestorian missionaries had spread out, as Polo says, right across Asia to China and over the Arabian Sea to the Malabar coast of India. But more than that. Some of the local rulers converted too.

According to a Nestorian tradition, Prince Tchaghataï, a nephew of the Great Khan, was baptised. To commemorate this conversion, the people of Samarkand (the “Golden Samarkand” of the poets) erected a church dedicated to St John the Baptist. (One version of Polo’s book is illuminated with a painting of this baptism.)

Around 1165, a so-called Letter from Prester John to the Pope, the Emperor in Constantinople and the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, began to circulate. This was undoubtedly a hoax by a Nestorian monk, but it provided one of the great myths of the middle ages, making the Christian king hidden in Asia, a great figure of the Western imagination. (Mixed into this legend there were also rumours of both the Emperor of Ethiopia and the Dalai Lama at Lhasa.)

Further east the king of the Kereyit, a Turko-Mongol tribe of Mongolia, also converted to Christianity. His name was Ong Khan. Rumours of his existence fed into the legend of Prester John. Many Europeans imagined this fabulous Christian monarch would strike at the Arab Muslims from the rear, as indeed the Mongol hordes did in the following century.

But who are these oriental Christians today?  It is a complicated scene, and one largely unfamiliar to western Catholics. There exist both the Nestorians and the Jacobite Syriac Church (now in eight groups, some Catholic, some Orthodox and some, in India, independent), as Polo remarks.

But also, the Assyrian Church of the east, the Syriac Orthodox Church and the Maronites in Lebanon (a Unitate Church of Rome).

In recent times, names have been altered for various theological and political reasons, which does not help towards understanding. The rites include West Syrian, Armenian, Byzantine, and Eastern Syriac.

Oriental Orthodox Churches are to be distinguished from Eastern Orthodox Churches, such as the Ethiopian. (A handy and readily available guide to these faiths is provided in part by Donald Attwater’s handbook The Christian Churches of the East, though events have marched on since this was published in 1961.)   

All across Asia, Christianity spread through early missionary work, rather than through conquest. The adherents of these Churches ante-date the rise of Islam, tracing their roots back directly to apostolic times. Though they are found in Europe and North America, they are not ‘crusader’ faiths at all.

The terrorism under which they now live has its origins in the aggressive rise of Islamic and indeed Hindu fanaticism – for it must be also recalled that Christians in the area have their own difficulties.

The history and the theological standing of these Churches are diverse and complicated. They are unfamiliar to Latin Christians simply because most people do not bother to inform themselves about them. (This confusion is shared to some extent by the Vatican which designated the Assyrian Christians who united with Rome as the ‘Chaldean Catholic Church’ in 1681, despite there being no reality to the connection with southern Iraq.)

Here is an area of study which we have neglected — yet I suppose if Catholics neglect to study their own beliefs, what can be hoped for in this respect? An appreciation of Marco Polo’s great work, and the scholarship that now surrounds it, can aid this process.

But all of these groups that acknowledge Christ in their different ways are Christians, and as such deserve the support of their fellow Christians in the west. Sects that earlier ages saw as ‘heretics’ must now be embraced as ‘brothers in Christ’.

In the coming year with the ever-increasing ferocity of conflict all across the Levant and Mesopotamia, things can only get worse before we celebrate another Christmas.

The Travels of Marco Polo, edited and translated by Ronald Latham, new edition (Penguin Classics, £7.99). Also Marco Polo: Le Livre des Merveilles du Monde, edited by Marie-Thérèse Gousset (Bibliotheque de L’Image, Paris).


Change of calendar 

The Julian calendar, introduced by Julius Caesar in 46BC, was a reform of the Roman calendar. It took effect in 45BC, shortly after the Roman conquest of Egypt. It was the predominant calendar in the Roman world, most of Europe and in European settlements in the Americas and elsewhere, until it was refined and superseded by the Gregorian calendar. 

The Gregorian calendar – sometimes called the western calendar or the Christian calendar – is internationally the most widely-used civil calendar. It is named for Pope Gregory XIII and was introduced by the papal bull Inter gravissimas, dated February 24, 1582. 

The Pope’s motivation for the adjustment was to bring the date for the celebration of Easter to the time of the year in which the First Council of Nicaea had agreed upon in 325AD.

The bull Inter gravissimas became the law of the Catholic Church, but it was not recognised by Protestant Churches, Orthodox Churches and some others. Consequently, the days on which Easter and related holidays were celebrated by different Christian Churches again diverged.


Many Protestant countries initially objected to adopting a Catholic innovation; some Protestants feared the new calendar was part of a plot to enfold them in the arms of the Vatican.

The British Empire (including the eastern part of what is now the United States) adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1752. In Ireland, the reform was adopted by Catholics when it was promulgated,except in those areas “within the Pale” where English rule prevailed. However, over time the whole country conformed to the Gregorian calendar by 1752.

In Britain that year, there were public protests and a widespread demand for the government to “Give us back our 11 days”. But such popular demands are often ill conceived. This certainly was.

It was not until 1917, after the Bolshevik Revolution, that the Gregorian calendar was adopted in Russia, hence the Russian celebration of Christmas on December 25 today.

The reform of the calendar was an occasion when the needs of science went hand in hand with the expression of papal authority.


Twelfth night

The ancient feast of Twelfth Night was basically a celebration of the eve of the feast Epiphany and the end of the Christmas season.

In the minds of many today, it has a special literary association thanks to William Shakespeare’s play.

In a remarkable piece of literary detective work, The First Night of Twelfth Night, the American scholar Leslie Hotson established that it was performed before Queen Elizabeth I and her guests, including an Italian nobleman named Orsino and the new Russian ambassador, in the Great Chamber at Whitehall Palace on January 6, 1601 at a reception for the visiting dignitaries. He demonstrated as well just how it must have been presented, not on a stage, but in the round with the audience on tiers of seats.

But the play was merely an important adjunct to an important Church event, one which had remained unchanged, despite the Reformation. 

The play was pure entertainment. The more serious matters of the religious feast day were for the next morning.

Across these islands, as well as much of Europe, Twelfth Night was an important feast and so it remains to this day in many Christian cultures.