You may have heard people mentioning how the Amish celebrate “Old Christmas,” but what exactly is this alternate Christmas that the Amish Celebrate? This question has multiple answers and requires a little knowledge of history and a bit of Christian liturgy.
To start, you may have heard Old Christmas being called Epiphany. These both happen to fall at the same time, and thus are celebrated on the same day by different groups of people. Epiphany is supposed to fall 12 days after Christmas Day, and is a day of feasting to commemorate the day that the three wise men visited Jesus as a baby. It’s a capstone to the Christmas liturgical season, and is the “12th day of Christmas.”
But why do so many people call Epiphany “Old Christmas?” Both of these names actually refer to different holidays of the Christmas season that fall on the same day through technicality. This comes from differences between calendars that different groups have used over the course of history, and understanding it requires a bit of a history lesson.
The original Roman calendar had 10 months of 30-31 days, which was trouble because every few years the seasons would go completely out of alignment with the months that were supposed to mark them. They solved this problem by occasionally inserting intercalary months during late winter until the seasons went back into sync with their respective months. Then in 46 BC Julius Caesar shifted Rome into the Julian Calendar, which had 12 months of 30-31 days, much like our own.
Meanwhile over in western Europe, many peoples celebrated the Pagan festival Yule, which was a celebration of the Winter Solstice and was also a birthday celebration for the Sun. Many centuries later, as many cultures were converted to Christianity, their holidays were changed to commemorate Christianity related events, which included Easter, All Saint’s Day, and Christmas.
Fast forward even further to 1582 when Pope Gregory XIII introduced the modern Gregorian Calendar, which is what we use today. The Gregorian calendar uses the same structure as the Julian Calendar, but the years are shortened by 0.0075 days so that there’s less seasonal drift, a VERY minor adjustment meant to fine tune the leap year. The new calendar also shifted the date forward by a little over 10 days, meaning that the sun went down on Thursday October 4 1582, and it came back up the next day, Friday October 15 1582.
However, there was a lot of resistance to this new calendar, primarily from protestant nations who did not want to follow the Pope’s orders, and so these two groups ended up with dates that varied by 10 days.
Over the course of the 1700’s, however, protestant nations started adopting the Gregorian calendar, but by this point the minute differences in the length of a year increased the difference to 11 days. By the early 1800’s all of Europe had transferred to the Gregorian calendar that we use today.
Today, some groups still uphold the Julian calendar for holidays, while living life based on the more popular Gregorian Calendar. So while most people celebrate Christmas on the Gregorian December 25th, some groups still celebrate on the Julian December 25th, which now falls on the Gregorian January 6th or 7th depending on which groups you ask. Old Christmas is still upheld by various branches of the Orthodox Church around the world in places like Scotland, Ireland, Ethiopia, Russia, Ukraine, and more! Among these people is the Amish, and while many Amish also celebrate on the 25th nowadays, they still celebrate Old Christmas.