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A time for every purpose under Heaven

12 January 2018

Ted Harrison finds comfort in the rhythm of life according to the Church’s year


Russian Orthodox Christmas mass in the Grotto of the Nativity

Russian Orthodox Christmas mass in the Grotto of the Nativity

IT WILL all depend on the weather, but getting seven swans a-swimming on to the island of Foula today might prove difficult. Although Christmas is over for most of us, on this remote Shetland island Christmas starts on 6 January, making today the seventh day.

Foula is not entirely alone: 6 January is celebrated as Old Christmas in several places in Britain. Before the calendar changed, more than 250 years ago, it was the day when the birth of Christ was traditionally celebrated, and some places have never quite come to terms with the new.

Mostly, however, Old Christmas has fused with Twelfth Night and Epiphany, and some folk traditions that might once have been observed at Christmas have shifted to a new day at the end of the first week of January.

One such is the Haxey Hood Game, a kind of large rugby scrum based around a two-foot-long leather tube called the “hood”. The game, which dates back to the 14th century, is still played in the parish of Haxey, in Lincolnshire, on 6 January. It starts with the Fool’s Speech, when the “Fool” stands with the parish church as a backdrop, and, engulfed by smoke, addresses the crowd.

In Llandysul, in the diocese of St Davids, the New Year is celebrated on the old date. “Calan Hen” (Old New Year) is an annual festival at the parish church involving congregations from the Llandysul area. The festival evolved out of a boozy local holiday, during which a riotous game of football was traditionally played.

As two churches, seven miles apart, were used as goal posts, it is not surprising that the Vicar of Llandysul, the Revd Enoch James, took steps to tame the festivities. In 1833, he introduced Calan Hen, in which adults and children gather to recite, sing, and answer questions on their faith. A gentler version of the old secular celebrations, however, known as Hen Galan, continues in the Gwaun Valley, near Fishguard.


THE reason for the calendar change, when 11 days were lopped from a year, was a miscalculation made 1500 years earlier, when Julius Caesar introduced a uniform calendar across the Roman Empire. After a millennium and a half, it was noticed that the calendar was getting out of kilter with the solar year; so, in 1582, Pope Gregory XIII decided that the errors should be corrected: 25 December by the Julian Calendar became 6 January by the Gregorian one.

Protestant Europe did not immediately follow suit, but, eventually, the change was universally adopted. In Britain, this happened in 1752 by order of Parliament. In addition to the residents of Foula, the Treasury also adheres to the unreformed calendar. When the change was introduced, during the reign of George II, those who paid rent on Lady Day in March protested so vociferously that they would be short-changed by the calendar revision that concessions were made; so the financial and tax year has started on 6 April ever since.

Russia did not revise its calendar until the downfall of the tsars, a century ago. The Russian Orthodox Church still observes the Julian Calendar, which, since the 16th century, has slipped another day or two. Christmas is celebrated on 7 January, and the festival starts on Christmas Eve. When the first star appears in the sky, many families gather for the Holy Supper, which traditionally includes 12 different foods to symbolise the Apostles.

In the United States, the Amish community of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, celebrate according to the old calendar. Best known for their horse buggies, old-fashioned farming methods, and general renunciation of modern life, they have also kept to the Gregorian calendar when it comes to their religious Christmas. Many Amish businesses remain closed on 6 January, despite the fact that the rest of the country is back at work after the holiday.


CHRISTMAS, however and whenever celebrated, is one of the dates in the church calendar which has no biblical provenance. The date can be traced back to the early Christian Roman emperors, and it is plausibly argued that they replaced the earlier, pagan midwinter festivals with one to celebrate the birth of Christ. One consequence of this pragmatic decision was that the Church conflates the birth, temptation, death, and resurrection of Christ into the first third of the liturgical year.

The date of Easter, however, is linked in the Gospel accounts to the date of the Jewish Passover. This link is essential to the story, and thus Easter is calculated with reference to the moon and its monthly cycle. The dates of Palm Sunday, Good Friday, Ascension Day, and Pentecost in turn depend on the timing of Easter. Many editions of the Book of Common Prayer contain tables of dates and numbers to calculate the date of Easter for future years.

The value of a church calendar can be viewed in two ways. First, it acts as a framework for faith. Christianity has many elements that make up the whole mystery. Christmas allows us to focus on the incarnation. During Lent, we can reflect on temptation and sin. On Good Friday, we remember God’s ultimate sacrifice. Easter brings joy and hope. Whitsun (or Pentecost) is a time to consider the continuing presence of the Holy Spirit in the world. On All Souls’ Day, we bring to mind those who have died. At Advent, our anticipation of the arrival of the Christ Child allows us to think of Christ’s second coming in glory and majesty.

In more recent times, some Sundays have been given their own themes, such as Bible Sunday and Sea Sunday. In the Anglican Communion, individual dioceses are prayed for regularly; within each diocese, specific parishes or ministries will be remembered in prayer. And, lending additional colour to the liturgical seasons, there are saints’ days.

Second, however, the calendar enables us to consider the nature of time itself. Years come in cycles: season by season, we return to where we were. Summer follows winter, but winter follows summer. Many Hindu and Buddhist traditions depict existence as a wheel, for ever turning, always moving on, and yet unchanging and permanent.

Although in this life we can have no true concept of eternity, we glimpse it as we experience the annual and repeating patterns of life through the Church’s year.

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