Calendar issues in early American Orthodoxy

One of the most obvious practical issues facing early Orthodox Christians in America was the difference between the Church calendar — the “Julian” calendar — and the civil (“Gregorian”) calendar. In the 19th century, twelve days separated the two calendars; after the turn of the century, the difference was thirteen days. And since the “New Calendar” wasn’t adopted by any of the world’s Orthodox Churches until the 1920s, the calendar discrepancy was something that every American Orthodox Christian dealt with.

Fr. Theodore Prussianos, pastor of Evangelismos (Annunciation) Greek Orthodox Church in Philadelphia, 1905

Fr. Theodore Prussianos, pastor of Evangelismos (Annunciation) Greek Orthodox Church in Philadelphia, 1905

Newspaper reporters were amused by the difference, and every year, there would be a spate of articles on the “Russian Christmas,” or the “Greek New Year.” For instance, here’s something from the Philadelphia Inquirer (12/24/1905):

When the thousands of children of this city upon whom the favor of good old St. Nicholas will fall this year have lost the keen delight first occasioned by the sight of their toys there will be about three hundred little ones who will still be wondering what Christmas morn will bring forth. There will also be about one thousand adults who have not yet satisfied their inclination for gift-giving.

It will not be until the seventh day of January that Christmas Day will dawn for these people.

It is due to the fact that they are communicants of the Greek Orthodox Church that their Christmas is so belated in comparison with that of the Western churches, the difference in time — thirteen days — being caused by the Greek Church’s adherence to the Julian calendar. All the Western churches use the Gregorian calendar, it having been adopted early in the eighteenth century.

Even before a portion of global Orthodoxy adopted the New Calendar in the 1920s, some American Orthodox people thought that a change should be made. On Pascha in 1906, Greek laborers in Gurley, Arkansas got into a fight over “whether the modern or the Greek Church calendar should be observed in celebrating the Christian festival.” The fight turned into a drunken riot, and it got so bad that the National Guard had to be called in. At least seven men died, and many more were injured. (Cf. New York Times, 4/17/1906.)

Fortunately, the calendar issue didn’t always lead to such turmoil. The Greeks in Columbia, South Carolina peacefully took matters into their own hands. From The State (1/8/1915):

Yesterday was Christmas day, under the Julian calendar, which is that retained by the Greek Orthodox church, but the Greek colony in Columbia, comprising upwards of 100 persons, lacking a church, did not observe the day. Louis Malloy, proprietor of a restaurant, said that he and his fellow countrymen in Columbia had adopted the Gregorian calendar and therefore their Christmas is December 24.

Fr. Ingram Nathaniel Irvine

Fr. Ingram Nathaniel Irvine

I should emphasize, both the chaos in Arkansas and the unilateral lay action in Columbia were anomalies; the vast majority of American Orthodox kept strictly to the Julian Calendar. In 1917, Fr. Ingram Nathaniel Irvine drafted an article on the calendar issue. I don’t think it was ever published; I found a handwritten copy in the OCA archives, and I’ve never seen it anywhere else.

It is very inconvenient, for the members of the Holy Orthodox Church to be observing the Great Festivals and fasts on days other than those on which Christians who belong to the Western Patriarchate and Protestantism observe.  Many faithful sons of Orthodoxy have lost their positions because they have kept Fasts and Festivals on days which have not coincided with those of their Western brethren.  Work would not wait for them and therefore, others stepped into their “jobs.” In many respects it takes a martyr to be a member of the Holy Orthodox Church in America – especially in the City of Greater New York.

The Holy Orthodox Church observes what is known as the Julian Calendar.  The Roman Church and all Protestant Bodies, on the other hand, observe the Gregorian.  At present there is (since 1901) thirteen days difference.  That is, the Gregorian Calendar runs ahead of the Julian and unless some conclusion is universally accepted as to the best method of correcting the whole Calendar the difference will become greater as the years come and go.

Who is at fault for this divergency?  Historians will not lay the blame on the Orthodox.  Rome has ever been the transgressor in such matters.  Her assumption of the doctrine of “supremacy” has given her the idea that all Christendom must bow before her.  Four hundred years ago the Orthodox Church had little consideration in the minds of the West.  Protestantism even worried more over Papal doctrines, interval abuses and superstitions than about the ancient ways and unblemished truths kept sacredly in the bosom of the Holy Orthodox Church of the East.

It may, indeed, be inconvenient for the Orthodox Church members in the West to go by the Julian Calendar and while Western Christians may count their Eastern brethren archaic in their observations yet the keeping of the Julian Calendar here in the West serves a good purpose.  It is a standing protest against the encroachments of Rome on the rights of Christendom and suggests investigation on the part of seekers after Ancient ways and truths amongst Protestants.

So, according to Irvine, the calendar difference could actually be a blessing in disguise, providing an opportunity for evangelism. He then went into considerable detail about the differences between the two calendars, and why Rome was wrong to have arbitrarily changed things. He then concluded:

According to this mode of reckoning, and because of the Church of the West’s disregard under the Roman Pope Gregory XIII in the 16th Century of the Canons of the General Council of Niece, there is sometimes several weeks difference between the two Churches in holding Easter. This creates confusion and is destructive to the Faith.

Again: — Whose fault is it? Surely it is not that of the Holy Orthodox Church. Being the Mother Church of Christendom she must protect the Canons of the General Councils which are binding upon all Christians. The Western Church is only a part of the Catholic Church, in fact her disobedient child.

For the information of inquirers it may be added that, Easter will fall on the same day for both Churches in the years 1916, ’22, ’30, ’36, ’39, ’42, ’43, etc., etc. In the intervening years there will be from one to several weeks apart in the observance of the Blessed Day – the greatest of Feasts which ought to bring us all together to the Empty Tomb of our One Lord and Risen Saviour. Whose fault is it that we are divided?

Of course, in the end, most of the Orthodox in America did switch to the New Calendar (with only the Paschal cycle remaining on the Old). That change, which was first implemented in 1924, is a story for another day.

2 Replies to “Calendar issues in early American Orthodoxy”

  1. I continue to enjoy this website. What a wonderful work!

    I think its a bit melodramatic to call the old calendar a martyrdom, but perhaps in that time it was more so (it can be no small burden though today).

    Even the so-called new calendar is still significantly different and even if it were “reconciled” with the West, there would still be many feasts in the middle of the week when most faithful cannot participate.

    I am not sure evangelism is best done from a position of historical excentricity, no matter how canonically authentic.

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