With flickering candles and ancient chants, millions of Orthodox Christians in Southern California and the world today celebrate Christmas.
"Peace from God! Christ is born!" is the exclamation heard in Serbian Orthodox churches. In Armenian parishes, water was blessed Wednesday and drunk by the faithful as a sign of the cleansing of their hearts and minds as they observed both the birth and baptism of Jesus. In Russian Orthodox parishes, where typically there are no pews, believers stood for three-hour traditional Christmas Eve services early this morning.
Although firm numbers are elusive, Orthodox churches in the region estimate that they have about 40,000 parishioners throughout Southern California. The number is considerably smaller than the size of the ethnic populations from which the churches draw--primarily Americans of Armenian, Russian, Greek and Eastern European origin--because in many communities, large numbers of people have stopped attending their ancestral churches as they have assimilated into American society.
Part of the reason for that assimilation is the difficulty of accommodating secular obligations and distinct religious traditions in a culturally diverse society. Christmas helps illustrate those problems, said Archbishop Vatche Hovsepian of the Armenian Apostolic Church of America.
Unlike Dec. 25, the date observed by Western churches, Orthodox Christmas is not a legal holiday. Some Orthodox Christians must choose between attending church and showing up for work or going to school. "It's a working day," Hovsepian said. "You can never tell how many will show up for church [Christmas Day]."
At St. Steven's Serbian Orthodox Cathedral in Alhambra, a ranking priest said he wrote more than the usual number of notes to public schools asking them to excuse absences of Orthodox children so that they could be at church and family celebrations.
The Los Angeles Unified School District said that as a matter of course it grants excused absences to students for religious observances, although pupils are usually expected to make up homework.
It's sometimes harder for working adults.
"Some people like contractors are doing bids on Thursday. When you're bidding a job, it's your bread and butter. It's hard to say, 'I can't bid because it's Orthodox Christmas,' " said the Very Rev. Nicholas Ceko, dean of St. Steven's.
Wednesday was also celebrated by many Latino Roman Catholics in the region as the Feast of the Three Kings, commemorating the arrival of the three kings at the birthplace of Christ. In the wider church that event is known as Epiphany. Traditionally, Epiphany fell on Jan. 6, but many Western churches, including the Roman Catholic Church in the United States, observed Epiphany last Sunday.
In Latino families that follow the old tradition, children receive gifts Jan. 6 in a shoe they put out on the eve of the holiday. Children are told that the gifts came from the three kings.
As Latino families prepared for the Epiphany celebration, the Orthodox faithful turned out for Christmas Eve services late Wednesday and early this morning. Armenians began the observance a day earlier.
The reason for the divergence of Christmas celebrations stems from changes in the Western world's calendars. All churches observe Dec. 25 as Christmas. But the Orthodox churches still employ the old Julian calendar, which Western churches abandoned in 1582 in favor of a new calendar adopted by Pope Gregory XIII. Because the Julian calendar is slightly inaccurate--an inaccuracy that has compounded over the centuries--dates on that calendar are now 13 days behind the corresponding Gregorian dates.
The Greek Orthodox Church abandoned the Julian calendar in 1923, and Ceko said that eventually other Orthodox churches will probably follow suit.
Hovsepian said that even among his own parishioners, opinion is divided over whether to adopt Dec. 25. "I hear that constantly," Hovsepian said.
But Phil Tamoush of Torrance, a publisher of Orthodox books and an organizer of Orthodox People Together, an umbrella group that promotes pan-Orthodox meetings, said that it is more likely that Eastern Orthodox and Western churches will agree on a common date for Easter before they settle on a date for Christmas. Unlike Christmas, the differing dates of Easter involve not just calendar discrepancies, but also disagreements over how to calculate the time to celebrate the Resurrection.
He noted that last year a conference in Lebanon between Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches offered some hope that agreement on a common date could be reached around 2001--a year when Easter coincidentally falls on the same date for both sets of churches.
Whatever the various dates for observing Christmas, the message this week in Orthodox churches was much like that in Roman Catholic and Protestant churches two weeks ago--a call for the peace of Christ to enter the hearts of believers.
In a homily to Armenians, Hovsepian pleaded for a new humility and selflessness.
"These are days that we cannot be self-centered or selfish individuals because Christ did not come for himself," the archbishop said. "He came for entire mankind. If we want to remain happy and want to generate love toward one another and peace on Earth, we cannot afford to be selfish," he said.
In a message to Serbian Orthodox Christians, Patriarch Pavle took up the metaphor of the sun. "The greater and darker the power of injustice, tyranny, fear of death and suffering from lies and coercion, all the more joyful is our anticipation of the birth of the Sun from the east. This is the birth of Christ, who is called in the holy writings the Sun of Righteousness, of freedom, of life, of truth and of love."