Growing up, I always dreaded the first day back from Christmas break. My classmates would be wearing new clothes and talking about all the gifts they’d gotten for Christmas.
When it was my turn to spill about the goodies I had reaped from Santa, I would just get real quiet. I had nothing to report.
"I don’t celebrate Christmas for another two weeks," I would explain time and time again. "I’m Serbian Orthodox, and we go by the Julian calendar."
Then I’d sheepishly admit that we don’t give gifts. It usually took people a few minutes to fully comprehend.
Today is Christmas for me and thousands of other Serbian Orthodox Christians living in the East Valley. Thirteen days after everyone else celebrated Christmas, the holiday decorations are long gone, Santa has disappeared from our radar and it’s easier to find parking in the mall.
"With us it’s more spiritual," says Dragica Lipovic of Mesa, a parishioner at St. Sava Serbian Orthodox Church in Phoenix. "Lord Christ didn’t come into this world so people could be running themselves mad shopping."
Only three Orthodox churches — the Serbian, Russian and Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem — have stuck with the Julian calendar, which was introduced by Julius Caesar in 46 B.C. and is currently 13 days behind. The rest of the Orthodox world uses the Gregorian calendar, which is the one we use today.
"We are celebrating the same holiday except it’s a different date," says Father Janko Trbovic of the St. Sava Serbian Orthodox Church. "The calendar does not change the meaning of the holiday."
Church is the center of the Christmas celebration. Parishioners are expected to fast for 40 days leading up to Christmas (most don’t or just fast Christmas Eve). Almost everyone comes to church Christmas Eve for a Lenten meal and a piece of the badnjak (an oak branch that is broken up and given to each family). The badnjak is blessed by the priest and burned in a fire. Per tradition, the more sparks you get when you burn the badnjak, the more luck you can expect in the coming year.
My parents and others in their generation were always strict about celebrating on Jan. 7. Some families say celebrating outside of the traditional Christmas season makes it easier to emphasize the holiday’s significance.
"It certainly has helped," says Julie Stojanovic of Chandler, who has two children and teaches Sunday school. "I don’t find myself going shopping until after New Year. It’s unfortunate that people are so frenzied."
In the Stojanovic household the children receive gifts on Dec. 19, St. Nicholas Day. George Stojanovic, 10, and his sister, Natasha, 9, put their shoes on the fireplace and wake up the next morning to find small gifts.
While older generations have shunned celebrating Dec. 25 even as a secular holiday, younger generations has proven more flexible. At St. Sava there are more Serbs in interfaith marriages and some who aren’t who simply want to give their children gifts in the spirit of the season.
"We focus more on the commercialism on the 25th, and the seventh is more religious," says Mary Goulian of Gilbert, who is in an interfaith marriage.
Parishioners occasionally express an interest in switching to the Gregorian calendar, says Trbovic. It would certainly make things a little easier.
"As long as celebration does not take away from actual spiritual religious meaning, that would not bother me so much," says Lipovic.