Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas around the world

Sent On: 
Sat, 2023-01-07
Newsletter Number: 

Dear Friends,


On January 7th, most of the Orthodox Christian world celebrates Christmas. Dialogue Across Borders wishes all Orthodox Christians, who number somewhere close to 260 million adherents around the world, a blessed celebration. The difference over the dating of Christmas between the Orthodox world and the Western churches (i.e. Roman Catholic, Anglican, and other Protestant churches) traces back to the decision of Pope Gregory XIII to introduce a revised calendar (“the Gregorian calendar”) in 1582. Most Orthodox churches continued to follow the Julian calendar which was adopted by Julius Caesar in 46 B.C.E.


What we often refer to as the Orthodox church or Orthodox Christianity is actually a complex family of churches that stretches across many parts of the world, but are primarily located in central and eastern Europe and the Middle East. This family of churches includes the primary Eastern Orthodox Churches (Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem, Russia, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Georgia, Cyprus, Greece, Poland, Albania, the Czech and Slovack Republics, and the United States). Over the past year, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has strained the relationship between these communities and further complicated the long religious history between Russia and Ukraine. In 2019, a national Orthodox Church of Ukraine was formally recognized by the most senior leader of the Eastern Orthodox Christianity, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I (b.1940). This development left another branch of Orthodox Christianity in Ukraine that remained under the Russian Orthodox Church, which comprises the largest of the Eastern Orthodox Churches with some 100 million adherents. Media reports suggest that a steady stream of people in Ukraine have left the branch aligned with the Russian Orthodox Church and joined the national Ukrainian Orthodox church since the start of the war. In particular, the support of the Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill (b.1946) for the invasion in Ukraine has been seen as highly controversial in the much of the Orthodox world.


Patriarch Kirill celebrates the Christmas Mass at Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow


Beyond the Eastern Orthodox Churches, the second major group of Orthodox Churches are often referred to as the Oriental Orthodox Churches, which includes the Coptic Church of Egypt, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, the Armenian Orthodox Church, the Malankara Orthodox Church, and the Eritrean Orthodox Church. Historically, these churches expressed reservations about the doctrinal formulations about the Council of Chalcedon (451), although the significant ecumenical efforts of the 20th century seem to have resolved at least some of the theological tensions.


Of course, in Egypt the main expression of Orthodox Christianity is the Coptic Church currently led by Pope Tawāḍrūs II (b.1952). January 7th is designated as a national holiday in Egypt. Because it falls on a Saturday this year, Sunday has been designated as a public holiday. Many senior government officials reach out to the Coptic Church to express good wishes for Christmas. On his official Twitter account, President Sīsī encouraged the nation to “seek inspiration in the fragrant concepts sown by the Master Christ (Ar: al-sayyid al-masīḥ) from love, tolerance, forgiveness, and the performance of good works.” At the same time, it appears that every Christmas there is some public attention given to the question of whether it is permissible for Muslims to congratulate Christians on this holiday. On December 25th, the fact that the Grand Imām of al-Azhar, Dr. Aḥmad al-Ṭayyib, wished Christians a blessed Christmas seems to have provoked some critical commentary online. The mainstream position of al-Azhar is that it is appropriate for Muslims to wish Christians a merry Christmas. The contrary position seems to be a minority viewpoint held in parts of the Muslim-majority world.


The Coptic Cathedral of the Nativity in the New Administrative Capital outside of Cairo prepares for the Christmas Mass led by Pope Tawāḍrūs


We wish all our Orthodox readers a blessed Christmas and a successful start for the New Year. In addition, we pray for a swift end to the Russia-Ukraine conflict.


With best wishes,


Matthew Anderson

Executive Editor

Dialogue Across Borders


January 07, 2023


Helpful Links:

  • A key resource for understanding the different traditions of Orthodox Christianity
  • Associated Press article on Ukraine, Russia, and Orthodox Christmas
  • President Sīsī wishes Egyptian Christians a blessed Christmas
  • Praise and criticism for the Grand Imām after his wishes for a blessed Christmas