Christmas may have ended on Dec. 26 for most people, but it just concluded for members of the St. Elias Russian Orthodox Church.
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That’s because this Christian denomination uses the Julian calendar — named for Julius Caesar — rather than the Gregorian calendar.
Dating back to the First Council of Nicaea in 325 AD, their liturgical calendar includes both fixed and moveable dates for celebrating and memorializing events important to the Christian faith. Rather than start on Jan. 1, their calendar begins on Sept. 1, which commemorates the birth of Christ’s mother. On Jan. 7 they celebrate Christ’s birth, which is their Christmas. Twelve days later they celebrate the baptism of Jesus.
Other important dates are when Jesus was crucified, when he was resurrected, and the last day of August which is the date of Mary’s death. In between are other celebrations to commemorate events and people important to Russian Orthodox Christianity, including the lives of different saints and martyrs.
“We don’t worship our saints,” said Father James Steele, pastor of the church. “They are windows into heaven that we pray to and ask for help.”
The biggest celebration is reserved for Easter, which is a moveable feast occurring sometime in April. It is moveable because the date changes from year to year. Prior to the event there are 47 days of fasting in which members abstain from eating meat, dairy and fish. The inside of the church is made darker to signify the mood of Christians following Christ’s death. “It is a time for fasting and reflection,” said Father James.
Then the day before the resurrection, church members gather. At midnight they march around the church with candles and banners to celebrate his rising. When they come back into the church it is brightly lit and they celebrate until early in the morning.
The church has no Russian members, although half of the 60 people who belong to the church are descendants of Russians. When the Bolsheviks took over Russia, they murdered tens of millions of people, including members of the Russian Orthodox Church. Others were deported to labor camps where they died. The communists blew up many Russian Orthodox churches, used others as dumps or horse stables, or burned them down after looting them, said Steele. Those Russians who could leave fled to other countries.
“One Sunday every year we remember all the martyrs of Russia,” said Father James.”
For those interested in attending services, the church holds a Saturday vigil at 6 p.m. and on Sunday there is a liturgy at 9:30 a.m. Father James oversees the church along with his wife Matushka Juliana Steele. Matushka is Russian for mother. They are located at 4253 Fowler Lane in Diamond Springs.