Ukrainians usually celebrate Christmas on January 7, like Russians. But not this year, or at least not all.
Some Orthodox Ukrainians, like many Christians around the world, have decided to celebrate Christmas on December 25. Yes, it has to do with war, and yes, you have the blessing of your local church.
The idea of celebrating the birth of Jesus in December was until now considered radical in Ukraine, but the Russian invasion changed the opinion and sentiment of many people.
The leadership of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which is not aligned with the Russian Church and is one of two branches of the Orthodox Church in the country, agreed in October to allow worshipers to celebrate December 25.
The choice of dates has clear political and religious connotations in a country with two rival Orthodox churches, and where small modifications to rites can carry a strong symbolic charge in the cultural war that is being waged in parallel to the fighting.
For some people, changing the date is alienating Russia, its culture and its religion. In a town on the outskirts of Kyiv, people recently voted to move forward with their Christmas celebrations.
“What began on February 24, a full-scale invasion, is a wake-up call and an understanding that we can no longer be part of the Russian world,” said Olena Pali, a 33-year-old resident of Bobrisia.
The Russian Orthodox Church, which claims authority over Orthodoxy in Ukraine, and other Eastern Orthodox churches continue to use the old Julian calendar. In that calendar, Christmas falls on January 7, 13 days after the Gregorian calendar used by most churches and secular groups.
The Catholic Church first adopted the more modern and astronomically accurate Gregorian calendar in the 16th century. Protestant and some Orthodox churches also align their calendars to calculate the date of Christmas.
The Synod of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church ruled in October that rectors of local churches could choose the date together with their communities, noting that the decision had come after years of negotiations, but was also a result of the circumstances of the war.
In Bobrytsia, some parishioners proposed changes to the local congregation, which had recently converted to join the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which had no ties to Russia. When the poll took place last week, 200 out of 204 people voted in favor of adopting December 25 as the new date for Christmas.
“This is a big step forward because in our history, we have never had the same Christmas celebration dates in Ukraine as the entire Christian world. The whole time we were different,” said Roman Ivanenko, a local Bobrisy official and one of the promoters of the change. A. Now, he said, they are “severing that relationship” with Russia.
“The church is Ukrainian, and the holidays are Ukrainian,” said Oleg Shkula, a member of the Volunteer Land Defense Force in the district that includes the city. For him, his church should not be associated with “the darkness and sorrow and antichrist that is Russia today”.
In 2019, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the spiritual leader of the Eastern Orthodox Church, granted full independence, or autocephaly, to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. Ukrainians who support the political independence of Ukraine from the former Soviet Union as well as the recognition of a national church have long been demanding such an authorization.
The Russian Orthodox Church and its leader, Patriarch Cyril, strongly opposed the decision, saying that Ukraine was not under Bartholomew’s jurisdiction.
The other major Orthodox branch in the country, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, remained loyal to Moscow until the start of the war. It declared its independence in May, although it remains under government scrutiny. That church traditionally celebrated Christmas on 7 January.
Arhirova reported from Kyiv, Ukraine. Associated Press religion reporter Peter Smith contributed from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.