Is changing Christmas from 7 January to 25 December a mark of the westernisation of Moldova - or a Catholic plot against the Orthodox Church? Anthropologist Olga Cojocaru shares her research into the two Christmases of Moldova
As an ex-Soviet nation where the majority of its territory was once part of Romania, Moldova is torn between the influence of Russia and the European Union.
This disjuncture leads to a linguistic and cultural divide represented by the competing poles of Russia and Romania, and a religious clash between the Orthodox Churches of Moscow and Bucharest.
This is most evident when the country celebrates Christmas.
Journalist Alex Ulmanu has published a short film here on the Russian preference for 7 January against the west European choice of 25 December, while anthropologist Olga Cojocaru shares her investigations into the subject below:
Each December an atmosphere of confusion is felt in Moldova: when should we celebrate Christmas? When was Jesus born? Who is right and who is wrong?
The debate intensifies in mid-December when the media is dominated by voices taking sides on a different date, but the question circulates without resolution, until the next year comes.
The Moldovan Orthodox Church, subordinate to the Moscow Patriarchate, uses the old style liturgical calendar of Christmas on 7 January, lagging 13 days behind the new Gregorian style of 25 December.
But most people in Moldova cannot explain the differences between the calendars or why there are two dates for Christmas.
While the Church declares this a false problem created by media and maintains Christmas on 7 January, the number of people switching from the old to the new calendar increases every year.
“Enough with the Russian influence”
Moldova’s confusion around Christmas is similar to the country’s unfixed language and identity.
Only in 2013 did the pro-EU Government decide the official language should be Romanian and recognized 25 December as an official holiday, but not an official Christmas.
I have interviewed a range of people of different ages, jobs and cultures to gauge an understanding of what Christmas means to Moldovans - and the most recurrent theme was the longing for an identity.
Many of these people regret that there is no liturgical and cultural unity with the nation many Moldovans identify themselves with the most.
“When I was little, my parents did not tell me that we belonged to the Romanian nation,” says 50 year-old clerk Mariana. “But my Mum was reading stories and singing songs and she remembered the interwar period (when the area of Moldova between the rivers Prut and Nistru was part of Romania). Since I was little I knew that my language was spoken there. I have always wanted to see Romania.”
Since his parents died, 65-year old publisher Pavel has celebrated only the new style.
Not a religious person, his motivation appears to be politically grounded.
“Enough with the Russian influence!” he says. “We have lived long enough under the Russian shoe. Now we want to be with our people.”
The supporters of the new style are not necessarily pious people. A cultural activist, Corina, sees this as a sign of a modern emancipation of the country.
“You should shout out loud that Christmas is on the 25 December,” she says, “even if you are an atheist.”
“Like the rest of the world”
As well as a longing for a temporal unification with Romania among the Romanian-speaking population of Moldova, there is also an aspiration to ally with the western world, epitomized by the European space which is seen as “civilized” and “exemplary”.
The new stylists seem eager to break free from the past and contemplate their future in a European project.
Hence, the enduring calendrical duplication is deemed anachronistic. These people view the old style as associated with tradition, the family past and its related memories, but also as a relic of the ex-soviet regime.
The media is also influential in the dissemination of the western model of values and traditions. From early December, broadcasts prepare the ground for the celebrations and contaminate the viewers with the festive mood. When TV shows the global celebration of Christmas around the world on 25 December, many feel left behind.
“Spiritually I am already in that mood and feel that I cannot wait until 7 January,” says 29 year-old Corina.
This over-saturation can also be exhausting for viewers.
“On 7 January,” adds Corina, “we are bored with Christmas already.”
“When I was a student, the world was not created by God”
There is also a group of non-religious people who have little interest in the religious debate, because they experienced an upbringing in the USSR, where religion did not interfere in public life.
One of my interviewees, 65-year-old Boris, says: “When I was a student, the world was not created by God.”
After an ‘atheist’ education, it was easier for him to decide when he wanted the holidays to be.
However this causes problems if different members of a family choose to celebrate Christmas on different days.
Meanwhile his friend, 70-year old Ion, remains a passionate Marxist. The discussion around the calendrical debate makes no sense to him.
“I take after people,” he says. “Those who take over power decide how people live and what and when they should celebrate.”
I ask Ion what is the difference between a holiday and an ordinary day. He gives a wry answer.
“On ordinary days everyone labors overtly,” he says, “while on holidays one works in secret so that the neighbors don't see him work.”
Torn between east and west
After the USSR collapsed and Moldova gained its independence in 1991, the Moldovan Orthodox Church remained subordinate to the Russian Orthodox Church, while breakaway clergymen pleaded to resume liturgical ties with Romania.
This group founded the autonomous Metropolitanate of Bessarabia in Moldova, under Romania’s canonical protection.
Russia’s Orthodox Church aims to keep the old calendar to differentiate the Orthodox rite from the encroaching influence of Catholicism.
The clergy is sensitive to this issue and finds it hard to take an objective stance.
Whenever I tried to get in touch with a theologian on this subject, I was either dismissed or given a passionate speech in favor or against a date.
Ioan Munteanu, a clergyman in the "Saviour Transfiguration" cathedral in Chisinau subordinate to the Metropolitane of Moldova, is intransigent.
"The Church should not modify the calendar according to the civil holidays,” he says, dismissing these celebrations as concerned only with “eating and drinking”.
He is also angry that people keep calling the holiday “Christmas”:
“Only we and the Russians pay homage to the true cause of this day,” he says. “This day should be called Nativity, like the Russian word Pождество.”
However another clergyman gives an equally enthusiastic response arguing that each nation has the right to choose when Christmas falls.
“Give me a break with this loveless dominion [from the Moscow Church],” says Vlad Mihaila, a priest in Saint Theodora from the Sihla cathedral, subordinate to Metropolitanate of Bessarabia. “How do you prove that you love God? When you give other nations the liberty to love themselves.”
The Moldovan Metropolitanate Vladimir wrote in the 2006 preface to “The Church calendar - anachronism or an indispensable element of the church tradition?” by Ioan Munteanu that an increasing number of believers question whether it is not high time the Church gave up the “obsolete calendar” and settle for the Gregorian.
The Metropolitanate asserted that the old style calendar is more than "a math table, which can be subject to any pseudo-scientific 'revolution'”.
According to him, any breach against the calender represents a violation not only of historic chronology, but also of the rhythm of life.
The arguments he invoked in favor of perpetuating the old time framework are related to the “preservation of tradition” and “resistance towards occidentalization.. and catholicization”.
The high clergy contends that the new style emerged from Catholicism and can bring only separation and disorder.
Generally the new style is identified as a Catholic institution and the Orthodox refusal to adjust the liturgical calendar is related to a wishful differentiation.
A unique temporal order shared by a group of people functions both as a unifier and as a separator, argues Eviatar Zerubavel, an American sociologist, specializing in time and calendars.
Similarly, the Moldovan church (and the Russian Church) feels these boundaries of their communities are under threat. By making them permeable, this could imply subverting the solidarity established within the community.
A church located in downtown Chisinau holds the headquarters of the Bessarabian Metropolitane, under the patronage of the Romanian patriarchate. The priests here are public figures with a nationalist position who plead for the adoption of the new style.
This pro-Romanian orientation is apparent from the number of books of Romanian history and poems, pictures and artifacts displayed at the entrance displaying the tricolor flag of Romania.
The eyes of gray-haired clergyman Vlad Mihaila sparkle when I tell him I would like to do research on the issue of calendar. “Finally,” he exclaims.
During our conversation, he bases the need for a change on a biblical verse that gives every nation state the right to self-determine their understanding of religious teaching.
"After the Resurrection, Jesus told his apostles to go preach the gospel within each individual nation - not [in one way] throughout the Roman Empire. We are not part of the Russian people. Let everybody know that we are not so cowardly to deny our origins.”
Mihaila condemns openly both the Moldovan Metropolitanate for the submission to Russian influence and the Russian Church for leaving little decisional space to Moldovan clergymen.
Other people are using this confusion to build a new sense of what Christmas means to them on a personal level.
25 December 2012 was a normal day for 36 year-old university lecturer Ala. Students arrived in her office to talk over their work. Others were finishing some exams.
Ala spent the evening not with friends, family and indulging in copious amounts of food, but drinking green tea over a book.
But to her, this was a kind of religious observation.
“It was a real joy and reverie for me, because the holiday matters especially psychologically,” she says. “It was an ordinary day through the activities I carried out but extraordinary because I knew it was not an ordinary day and from this respect this day is tremendously special.”
Ala has invested the new date with a set of meanings based on her personal beliefs.
I ask her when the true Christmas for her, and she says that spiritually and psychologically, she prefers the new style.
She moved from the countryside to Chisinau 20 years ago, founded her own family and therefore decided upon her own pace of the holidays.
Although a passionate believer, Ala does not attend church because she does not feel comfortable with Orthodox rituals.
When she was a student, she once entered a Catholic church, sat on a bench and enjoyed a few minutes of silent meditation.
This moment was a micro epiphany which revealed her “how an authentic religious experience should feel like”.
In contrast, she finds that in Orthodox churches, there are critical eyes from the congregation who follow her conduct.
She adds that she cannot open up herself to talk to the priest in such an environment.
“Intimacy is not possible when there are lots of people waiting their turn behind you,” she says, “or when the priest pretends to listen to what you say - and you pretend to confess.”