June 12, 2013

The Date of Orthodox Easter in Finland and Estonia

By John Sanidopoulos

Many Orthodox Christians are scandalized over the fact that some fellow Orthodox Christians in Finland and Estonia celebrate Easter according to the reckoning of the Gregorian Calendar rather than the Julian Calendar. The fact remains however that the reason these special cases exist are more complicated historically and canonically than is generally assumed.

The early 20th century Calendar issue in the Orthodox Church is a very complicated issue. The issue essentially rested on the case of whether or not the Church should have a separate official calendar from the State in which its people resided and worked. In some nations the issue was much more complicated than others. For example, with the separation of Church and State in Russia under the Bolsheviks, it was determined by the State to force the Russian Church into accepting the Gregorian Calendar which the Bosheviks accepted civilly in January of 1919. Patriarch Tikhon at that time in 1919 was against this because he considered the issue an ecclesiastical one and did not want to be forced by the State to accept a Calendar reform, and wrote a Letter (No. 464/21 January 1919) to the Mother Church under Ecumenical Patriarch Germanos V (1913-1918) to help settle the controversy. Patriarch Tikhon considered the change of calendar by any autocephalous Church should be on a Pan-ecclesiastical level. Ecumenical Patriarch Germanos determined that the Russian Church was not to change the calendar until a Synod determined whether or not this should be done and how it was to be done. Plus, it was viewed by all the Orthodox Churches at the time that the Gregorian Calendar was not as accurate as it should be, therefore a new determination by their own experts were to be consulted to form a new calendar. When the Holy Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate and a Pan-Orthodox Congress did determine a more precise formulation in 1924, the Reformed Julian Calendar, Patriarch Tikhon, who had a disposition to change, did not move forward due to many factors. Among the factors as to why the Russian Church was unable to change calendars at the time were: the locking up of the churches and confiscation of Church property (Decree of January 23, 1918); the desecration of the Christian graves and the destruction of the relics of the saints (Encyclical Order of March 1, 1919); the famine of 1921; localization of Patriarch Tikhon (May 10, 1922), and the appearance of the "Living Church" and the schismatic movement (beginning of 1923).

Due to the pressures of the State and threats of schism, Patriarch Tikhon in his 1919 Letter to the Ecumenical Patriarch did desire a quick solution to the calendar issue. Among the issues he addressed in his letter was to end the affliction of Orthodox who were living in places where they were a minority and where the civil Law didn't take into consideration the Orthodox ecclesiastical order.

Patriarch Tikhon to this aspect of the calendar problem very correctly gives great importance. According to notes made in his Let­ter, they were in a difficult position because of the parallel daily use of the two calendars; the one for daily life and vital relations, and the other for the liturgical practices of the Church. For example, Patriarch Tikhon refers to the case of the Orthodox in Finland, where the ma­jority were Lutherans, who had accepted the new calendar. A custom for celebrating the Divine Liturgy in the Orthodox Churches for the days of Christmas, Annunciation and other Christian feasts on the same day as the Lutherans was established to blunt the sharp difficulties the Orthodox had reached. Orthodox were going to Finnish churches to celebrate the feasts for these days.

The reason for which this measure was decided was to occupy the Orthodox population during this involuntary holiday with something which would produce a spiritual profit, but also to be protected from the "bait" of visiting a Lutheran mass. After the political alteration in 1917 when Finland was proclaimed an independent state (in July of 1919 it became a Republic), the Pan-Russian Synod, as Patriarch Tik­hon states in his Letter, was obliged to allow to the Finish Orthodox parishes to celebrate according to the new calendar. Christians in oth­er places could be found in the same or similar position, where new separate states were formed, for example Poland, Lithuania, Estonia and generally where the Orthodox constituted a minority.

The Orthodox Church of Finland

In November 1918 an edict by the Finnish government granted the Orthodox Church of Finland the status of the second national church of the country, after the Lutheran, with all attendant rights and privileges. However, due to the Russian Revolution in 1917, Finland sought to distance itself more and more from Russia, which forced Patriarch Tikhon to officially grant the Finnish Orthodox autonomy in 1921. Under the complex political circumstances, in order not to seem 'pro-Russian', the Finnish Church urged towards reforms allowed previously by Patriarch Tikhon, and in October of 1921 it adopted the Gregorian Calendar and began to celebrate Western Easter. The autonomy of the Finnish Orthodox proved to be difficult for them and they felt cut off from both Russia and Constantinople, therefore they chose their only option at the time, which was to become an autonomous archbishopric of the Patriarchate of Constantinople in 1923. For the sake of unity in Finland after the Soviets invaded part of the country and divided the faithful of Finland, it was urged in 1925 by Bishop German (Aav) for all Orthodox in Finland to adopt the Gregorian Calendar. Many refused, such as the fathers of Valaam Monastery, and therefore fled to countries where they could preserve the Julian Calendar, such as the Soviet Union or Serbia.

The Orthodox Church of Estonia

The issue of Calendar reform in Estonia has many similarities with that of Finland. It also was under the Russians with a majority German Lutheran population, and following the Russian Revolution of 1917 Estonia sought more and more to distance itself from the Bolsheviks. The General (clergy-laity) Assembly in 1919 sent the corresponding appeal for independence to the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church. On June 15, 1920, the Synod decided to grant the Church of Estonia autonomy in economic, administrative and educational matters and the right to use the Gregorian Calendar. Because of the complicated situation in Russia, and like Finland they felt the need to be connected with either Russia or Constantinople, the Estonian Church appealed to the Ecumenical Patriarchate. So, in 1923, a delegation of Estonian and Finnish Churches went to Constantinople to ask for a correct canonical status for the Church in a newly independent country. On June 7th, 1923, the Holy Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate issued the tomos of autonomy for the Estonian Orthodox Church.


The Finnish and Estonian Churches were always considered a special case regarding their adoption of the Gregorian Calendar for very sensitive reasons. There was intense pressure by the Finnish government to have the Finnish Orthodox adopt the Gregorian Calendar and distance itself as much as possible from the Russians. At just under 2% of the population, because of their adoption they were able to have equal privileges with the local Lutheran Church in Finland and it allowed for the flourishing of the Church in a time of persecution. It further allows the Church to be supported by the State from tax revenues. Today in Finland and Estonia the Orthodox Church has a very favorable position in society and its reforms are seen to be a positive thing. It was meant to be temporary until the issue could be brought up in a Pan-Orthodox Synod, but that has not happened yet. This is why the Finnish and Estonian issue was never controversial except by those who refuse to understand the situation and use it as a way to justify bad attitudes against the Calendar reform.

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