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Thursday, January 10, 2008

Twin Christmases


[This commentary aired on Vermont Public Radio on the morning of January 10, 2008. Hear the podcast or streaming audio here.]

In February 1582, the Catholic Church, in the person of Pope Gregory the thirteenth, decreed a new, more accurate calendar to replace the Julian calendar, which had been in use since 45 BC. The revision meant dropping 10 days off the year, and Protestant countries resisted the change for a full century. Tsarist Russia, however, clung much longer to the less accurate Julian calendar, the temporal difference expanding with each passing century.

It wasnâ??t until February 1, 1918, three months after the Bolsheviks seized power, that Russia finally made the switch. By then, the Julian calendar was 13 days behind the Gregorian. So Russians went to sleep on January 31 and woke up on February 14.

As a result, there is a permanent wrinkle in Russian time.

Which brings us to the twin Christmases.

Soviet Russia may have switched to the Gregorian calendar in 1918, but the Russian and other Eastern Orthodox Churches did not. So, while Christmas in the West falls on December 25, Russian Orthodox Christmas is celebrated 13 days later, on January 7. Likewise, New Year's is not January 1, but January 14.

Now, this wasn't really a problem during the Soviet era, since Christmas and other religious holidays had been abolished. New Year's became the Soviet winter holiday, co-opting Christmas symbols. The Christmas tree, imported to Russia by Peter the Great, became the New Year's tree, and St. Nicholas became Father Frost.

But today, the Orthodox Church is resurgent in Russia. There is also increased contact with the culture and traditions of the West. Which means Russia starts shutting down for the holidays just before December 25 and doesn't really get going again until after January 14.

Needless to say, even party-loving Russians have a hard time holding up under the assault of a three-week-long celebration.

Interestingly, as Russia moves through this season of mirrored holidays, it is grappling with another dualism: two presidents. Vladimir Putin, who has reigned since 2000, has selected his heir apparent. Barring a miracle, the next Russian president will be Dmitry Medvedev, a lawyer, college professor, oil company chairman and first deputy prime minister who has been Putin's right hand man for the last 17 years. Medvedev, for his part, has said he will make President Putin his prime minister.

Democracy? Bah Humbug! The President of Christmas Past will become the Prime Minister of Christmas Future, and the Deputy Prime Minister everyone thought was a political Tiny Tim has been transformed into the Future President.

It's not clear at this point how power will be divided between the past and future presidents, whether Putin will in fact accept the diminished position of Prime Minister, or if this is just a ruse so he can step back into the presidency a few months later.

Clearly something will have to give. After all, it's one thing to have two Christmases - and quite another to have two... presidents.