Countries that celebrate Christmas in January
By Martha Hales
The seventh of January might not seem like a date that brings joy - most of us will be firmly back into the daily routine after the fun of the winter holidays. But for Orthodox Christians, this is the peak of festivities as they follow the Julian calendar - their Christmas Day falls almost two weeks after much of the rest of the world.
Christmas is one of the best known religious celebrations around, and in countries with a strong Christian tradition it is one of the most significant festivals of the calendar. Most communities and countries who celebrate Christmas follow the Gregorian calendar, and commemorate the birth of Christ on December 25th when families gather and enjoy elaborate meals and exchange gifts.
Throughout the Christian world there are some orthodox branches of the faith which still adhere to the Julian calendar, particularly for religious occasions, meaning that festivities take place 13 days later than elsewhere. So in various parts of Eastern Europe and the Middle East there are a number of nations where Christmas falls on January 7th. If you are a true fan of Christmas festivities you could feasibly experience double the fun by having a December 25th Christmas and then a 7th January Christmas 13 days later if you visit one of the following destinations.
During the Soviet era the Russians didn't observe Christmas openly, but since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 the orthodox faith has enjoyed a resurgence and Christmas is now celebrated once again, though as a hangover from the days when religious celebrations were not allowed, New Year is a huge event whereas Christmas is a smaller celebration. The traditions associated with Christmas go back centuries in Russia, and include fasting the day before the big day, breaking the fast when the first star appears in the sky on Christmas Eve. Christmas Day traditions include a hearty meal with roast meats and stuffed dumplings - pierogi - and gingerbread for dessert. The Russian equivalent of Father Christmas, Grandfather Frost, brings children gifts but at New Year rather than at Christmas.
Visit Russia during this magical time with our trusted local expert’s Christmas in Russia Tour
The Alilo procession is central to a traditional Georgian Christmas, and involves all members of a parish donning costumes and taking to the streets where families enjoy the parade and children are given sweets by those watching the procession. The lengthy church services on Christmas Eve can go on until 4am when the congregation celebrates the birth of Christ before heading home to sleep in preparation for the festivities. Another key aspect of the Georgian Christmas experience is the distinctive 'Chichilaki' Christmas trees, which are made with curly strands of hazelnut or walnut wood which creates a bushy 'beard' said to resemble the beard of St Basil.
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Although Kazakhstan is a majority Muslim country, there are a minority of Orthodox Christians who enjoy celebrating Christmas on January 7th each year. The first step for many faithful Kazakh Christians is to begin a fast 40 days beforehand, cutting out meat and sometimes other food groups until the first star appears on January 6th. The feast on the 7th January is usually celebrated with extended family and will often include meats and sweet treats to break the fast in sumptuous style. The dining table is often dressed with a white tablecloth to symbolise the clothing of baby Jesus, while hay is spread on the table top to represent Jesus's humble beginnings. As in Russia, Kazakhstan enjoys a huge nationwide celebration for New Year, and Christmas is far more low key, yet the decorations and lights which adorn the streets of the major towns and cities for New Year give everything a very festive and wintry appeal.
Take a look at our trusted local expert’s recommended Kazakhstan itineraries for trip inspiration.
A unique combination of historic religious sites and spellbinding landscapes are waiting for you in Ethiopia, yet another nation where orthodox Christianity is the dominant faith. Christmas here has ancient traditions associated with it, and the best place to see these for yourself is at Lalibela where the amazing rock hewn churches have been chipped from the cliffs, all 13 of them. Far from being a preserved historic site, these beautiful churches are still host to some of the most uplifting and absorbing Christmas celebrations anywhere. Pilgrims travel for days to reach the holy town, and the streets around the rock hewn churches become busy with white robed devotees who set up camp wherever they find a space. Christmas Eve - January 6th - is the pinnacle of religious fervour, with worship, chanting, swaying and celebrating taking place in and around the churches all day. Festivities wrap up at dawn on January 7th, when the pilgrims begin to trickle away and Orthodox Christians head home to continue the festivities.
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Much like other nations which were formerly part of the Soviet Union, Armenia celebrates Christmas in January, though in this case the date is the 6th rather than the 7th. Armenia is one of the oldest Christian nations in the world, and so after the 70 years of Soviet rule when religious expression was banned, it didn't take long for the historic traditions of Christmas to reassert themselves. Armenians mark Christmas Eve by lighting candles around their homes to mirror the light that Jesus brought to the world, and holy water is used to bless the home and the people who live there, and sometimes even basic provisions such as salt, bread and grain. The holy water is sometimes used to wash hands and any other part of the body which is suffering. The main meal enjoyed by followers of the Armenian Apostolic church often includes trout and spiced rice with nuts and dried fruit. The following day, January 7th, is a day of remembrance when families visit the graves of loved ones with offerings and flowers and then spend the day remembering them with stories and memories.
Check out our trusted local partner’s suggested itineraries for Armenian trip inspiration.
Make it happen
Double up your Christmas celebrations with a trip to one of these fantastic destinations in early January. Combine the festivities with exciting tours and activities in these varied corners of the globe, from Russia to Ethiopia. Click on the links above to find out more and if you're interested in travelling to any of the countries listed send an enquiry to our local tour operators who can help build your bespoke itinerary. To speak to someone in the TravelLocal office please call +44 (0)117 325 7898.