Wednesday, December 2, 2009
Santa claus is coming, again...
Christmas is coming, this year again. It is a holiday to spend with friends and family, and I and my girlfriend will go spend it in Bulgaria, after 3,5 months of abscence.
There will spend it on the 24/25th of December, the same dates as my own family in Sweden. So do protestants and catholics, and so do the Romanian and the Bulgarian churches. Other orthodox churches, like the Russian and the Serbian, celebrate on the dates from the Iulian calendar - the 6th of January.
In Bulgaria press, priests and other pundits have recently been discussing to move the date of christmas forward to the 6th of january. It seems quite unlikely to happen - just imagine the christmas shopping season beginning two weeks later in one EU-country than in the other's. Wouldn't that be a obstacle to free trade? Moreover, the question can only be decided by the Holy Synod, and last time time it was up or discussion, a big majority was against it.
But when did the date actually change from the 6th of january to the 25th of december? (We might highlight the ethoncentrism here - the 6th of january is oviosly the date the christmas falls on in OUR calendar, not the serbian or russian church's calendar).
The catholic church changed the dates in 1583. This is time when the ottoman empire was at its strongest. The ottomans could be cruel with minorities that they perceived as a threat to the state, but they were convinced liberals in religious matters. To the orthodox churches the catholic efforts of prozelysation was a much worse threat than the sultans' political power, so they did not have any strong reason to change the dates. Quite on the contrary - they had a strong reason to differ from the catholic church, in order to defend their identity. So they stuck with the iulian calendar's date - the 6th of January.
An irrelevant impasse - Sweden didn't change calendar until 1753. Whatever else that signifies, I think it is a hint that our place in Western Europe was not obvious for a very long time.
In today's Moldova, christmas can be a very prolonged holiday. Firs there is the romanian/western christmas at 25th. Where I was living, one of our neighbours belonged to Jehova's Wittnesses so we celebrated already the 24th. Then the party is on until new years eve. There is really no point in starting to work then, because at 6th of January the russian church celebrates christmas, and after a week its own new year. Then, at the end of january, things go back to normal.
With the tangible contradictions between east and west in Moldova, the choice to celebrate christmas on the same date as Western Europe seemed to signify a deeper sense of European identity. This is also what many people said. Those who were actively pro-romanian thought of the russian christmas dates as obsolete, a left over from the Russian imperialism masked as communism. But quite frankly, Moldovans of all denominations usually celebrated both dates.
With this in mind, it seemed all natural to me that Bulgaria, an EU member state with a people very convinced about its European identity, celebrated on the 25th of december. This is also what many commentors say - we are Europeans, let's celebrate like in Europe.
But when did Bulgaria change? Did people celebrate on Russian dates during communism, when Bulgaria was sometimes described as "the 16th soviet republic"? No. First of all - the communist rulers did what they could to make people celebrate new year in stead of christmas. And guess what, in 1948, two years after the communist takeover, the communists aligned the Bulgarian church's calendar, not with the Russian, but with the western catholic.
Those who now ask for a return to the 6th of January say that this decision, taken in 1948 by the highest synod, was taken under political pressure, and therefore is not valid. Political pressure is probably an understatement, but the irony is that reverting this forced decision today, would most likely signalize to most people a return to the communist heritage of choosing Russia over Europe.
History is sometimes a complicated web of ambigious identities. But when you finally sit down at the christmas table all of that seem to disappear.
Picture from creative commons, credits to: Darwin Bell