BOSTON — I’ll never get to relay my appreciation properly to Pope Gregory XIII. It’s not entirely my fault: He died on April 10, 1585. Not to mention, communication between the Baby Boomers and Gen Xers is tough enough with only a couple of generations separating them, never mind the 21 generations between Pope Gregory and me. Still, this year I’d like to reach out through the gauzy haze of the netherworld is to thank him for the gift he sent me this week (inadvertently, I’m sure): A second Christmas.
I’m not complaining: Christmas was great this year. My first with my wonderful new wife and spent with all the family I see all too rarely. There was a wee bit too much driving, but it was a small price to pay. Still, by last Thursday Christmas to me may well have occurred in the Sixteenth Century. Only 11 days had elapsed, but that was half a lifetime ago in today’s hustle bustle world.
But Christmas wasn’t going away this year without a fight.
Every day I take the same route to the Post Office, on foot, past the McDonald’s, with maybe a stop at the Redemption Center if I’ve collected enough cans to make it worth my while. There’s a Bulgarian Orthodox church on the route as well. I’ve paid special notice to it because it is going through extensive renovations that change it almost daily. Last week I noticed a small sign announcing a gala Christmas celebration set for January 6. But wait, I’ve already bought and distributed all my gifts, and duly trudged those bought and distributed to me home. Isn’t it all over? Apparently not. I decided to investigate further.
So on Thursday evening I went out to the Holy Resurrection and introduced myself. It looked like a Christmas play: There were festively wrapped gifts, parishioners caroling, and holiday decorations everywhere. The occasional passerby looked very confused. I stood off to the side at first and listened to the Russian being spoken by many in the crowd, trying to pick up words from my own study of the language. I didn’t get much from it all, just a bunch of personal pronouns and that one woman was from Siberia and had recently read a wonderful book…I just missed what it was.
Eventually I tracked down the Parish President, a soft-spoken man, who was only too happy to explain to me the gap between the “old calendar,” which Orthodox countries follow for holidays, and the Gregorian calendar which I have always followed. Turns out folks in Russia, Serbia, and in several Eastern European countries were just getting around to Christmas that night as well. Meanwhile, I was about to have my second one, thanks to Pope Gregory who decided in the tenth year of his papacy it was high time the calendar started matching up with the seasons again, and put forward a series of astonishing declarations to make it so.
This decision led to the peculiarity for those living in 1582 of going to sleep on Thursday, October 4 and waking up 12 hours later on Friday, October 15. (If this were to happen in modern times, we would all have missed an entire week’s episode of CSI, The O.C. or Cold Case. Imagine the pandemonium, the confusion.) They were told about Gregory’s idea for leap year at about the same time. Drastic changes were afoot. Outside of Catholic countries, many nations were understandably reluctant to adopt the Gregorian calendar. Great Britain (and, therefore, its American colonies) did not sign on until 1752. Having missed all those leap years in between, they were forced to drop 11 days from their calendar instead of ten. Luckily, even in the Eighteenth Century, the television programming conundrum still had not become a factor.
WHILE MANY PARISHIONERS readily dispensed positive rhetoric about the spiritual advantages of avoiding the buying and selling of modern Christmas, we got down to brass tacks pretty soon. Once they got comfortable chatting with me, almost everyone — some in hushed tones — pointed out the practical advantages as well. Such as being able to truly take advantage of after-Christmas sales, for example. Two or three of the congregants even explained how the dissenting from the Gregorian calendar got them their Christmas tree for free every year: Just wait until your neighbors toss theirs away after New Year’s and pick it up. You’re still five days early. Orthodox bargain hunters. I love America.
Then word came down the Bishop was now a mere two minutes away. A reverential giddiness descended upon the crowd. It was a big deal. The visiting bishop, Metropolitan Joseph, is one of the Bulgarian Orthodoxy’s most revered figures and a man much in demand. He presides over a ministry territory vast enough to make the most ambitious traveling salesman quake in his boots. It includes all of America, Canada, and Australia.
As the Bishop entered the building — smiling through a long gray beard and dressed in a stately head-to-toe cloak of black — a five-year-old parishioner handed him a single rose, and said shyly, “Christ is born.” To which the Bishop duly answered, “Glorify him.”
As if on cue, the church bells began chiming, and parishioners crammed into the stairwell began singing their hearts out, as the bishop slowly climbed the stairs, smiling at what he had created, pausing to touch the shoulders of members of his flock as they bent to kiss his hand. As the crowd surged back and forth a priest tried in vain to remind them not to step on a small blue and gold rug brought out only when the bishop makes the trip to the parish from his New York City base. The rug depicts an eagle over a city, representing the Bishop’s authority over the church. But none of the parishioners could be bothered with a rug when the real live Bishop was there.
And just as he was preparing to settle in for the four-plus hour service, the Bishop seemed to catch glimpse of me out of the corner of his eye as I scribbled away in my notebook. He was a sprightly man all smiles through his long beard. Perhaps I can be forgiven for saying he looked like Santa Claus, if the Jolly One ever decided to start wearing all black. Clearly, I was not a member of the parish, but he came over anyway and wished me a Merry Christmas and put up his hand for me to kiss it like everyone else had done.
So, hoping no one in the congregation had the nasty flu making the rounds, I did, and, thus, created a new saying out of the cloth of an old one: When in Rome do as the Romans. When in the Russian section of Boston, do as the Orthodox do.