December 2014 Letter
With the start of the Fast of Nativity (Advent) and the approach of Christmas according to the Western calendar, the question again arises for the reason behind celebrating Christmas on different dates. We’ll try to clarify this in a simple way.
The Coptic Church defined the date of celebrating Christmas on the Egyptian calendar according to chapter 18 of Didascalia: “brethren, watch the days of feasts of which the birth of our Lord is the first, complete it on the 25th day of the 9th month of the Hebrews, which is the 29th of the 4th month (Kiahk) of the Egyptians”.
So the Copts were – and still are – celebrating Christmas on the 29th of Kiahk. This is the Coptic calendar which is related to all their feasts, as well as their liturgical and civil life. This continued till the start of the last quarter of the 19th century, and specifically the year 1875 AD in the time of reigning of Khedive Ismail, when the Coptic calendar was stopped and was replaced by the Western calendar on the first of Tut 1592 AM, equivalent to September 11, 1875 AD.
As for the Western calendar, it was first known as the “Julian Calendar” in reference to Julius Caesar, who by the help of an Egyptian astronomer from Alexandria copied the ancient Egyptian calendar on the year 42 BC, but it was amended in the order of months, making the odds 31 days and the evens 30 days only, except for the month of February where he made 29 days and increased to 30 days every four years. Then Augustus Caesar altered this arrangement to what we know now, making the month of August 31 days, and thus February swinging between 28 and 29 days.
When the first Ecumenical council of Nicea was held in 325 AD, it fixed March 21st as the vernal equinox upon which Easter is determined. During the reign of Pope Gregory XIII in the year 1582 AD, vernal equinox occurred on March 11th instead of March 21st, ten days behind the Council of Nicea. Until this year (1582 AD) Kiahk 29th coincided with December 25th, so Egypt until the second half of the 16th century was celebrating Christmas on the 25th of December, but according to its Coptic calendar and not the Western one, i.e. Kiahk 29.
On October 5th, 1582 AD the council of Cardinals met in Rome, and decided that October 5th is to become October 15th, in order to correct the error in the vernal equinox. People woke up on October 6th on the year 1582 AD to find themselves on the day of October 16, and this amendment is what is known as the “Gregorian amendment.” The following year; 1583 AD, the Copts celebrated Christmas as usual on Kiahk 29, but this time it coincided with January 4th, with a difference of ten days. Then, according to the Julian calendar another 3 days were added over the following years, bringing Christmas, which the Copts celebrate on Kiahk 29th to fall on January 7th, with a difference of 13 days from December 25th.
Please remember the church, the priests, the servants and their services always in your prayers, and may the blessings of St. Mary and St. Mercurius and the blessing of the Nativity fast be with us always, Amen.
Fr. Youssef Halim & Fr. Luke Istafanous
Belleville, December 1, 2014