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February 21, 2024

Ukraine Celebrates Christmas on December 25th for the First Time

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Dec 26, 2023

Introduction

For the first time in over 300 years, Ukraine is celebrating Christmas on December 25th according to the Gregorian calendar, instead of January 7th as mandated by the Julian calendar previously used by the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. This symbolic break from Russian domination reflects Ukraine’s ongoing struggle for cultural and religious independence amid Russia’s full-scale invasion.

While Christmas celebrations are muted under wartime conditions, the holiday takes on special meaning this year as a show of Ukrainian resilience and identity. As President Zelenskyy declared, “we celebrate Christmas with family. Even if some are away at the frontline. These are still our families.”

Move to December 25th Celebration

The Ukrainian parliament voted overwhelmingly in November to officially change the Christmas date to December 25th. This aligns with the date celebrated by the Western church, including the Ukrainian Catholic church which follows the authority of the Pope.

Previously, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church followed the Julian calendar directed by the Russian Orthodox Church. This was a vestige of centuries under Russian imperial and Soviet domination, which suppressed Ukrainian language and culture.

By shifting the date, religious and political leaders hope to spur a national and spiritual awakening. As Minister of Culture Oleksandr Tkachenko stated, “Now, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church has an opportunity to finalize its independence from Moscow.”

Subdued But Symbolic Celebrations

While public Christmas festivities are largely cancelled due to martial law bans on large gatherings, Ukrainians are determined to uphold cherished traditions. Homes and churches are adorned with pine garlands, Christmas trees, and nativity scenes. Families gather on Christmas Eve for the Sviata Vecheria meal, with twelve meatless dishes representing Jesus’s apostles.

At the frontlines, improvised trees bring holiday cheer to the trenches. Soldiers recorded video messages to send home for the holiday. As one serviceman declared while hanging ornaments on a battle-scarred tree, “We are celebrating Christmas near Soledar. We congratulate all Ukrainians who celebrate Christmas today… Glory to Ukraine!”

In his Christmas address, President Zelenskyy praised Ukrainians’ resilience and urged them to not lose hope and strength. “We have been defending Christmas for eight years now – from the temporary occupation of Crimea to the current Russian invasion across our country,” he stated.

Reaction from Orthodox Church

The Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which previously followed Moscow’s direction, has been splintered by the war. While the main branch under Patriarch Onufriy rejected the December 25th shift, a growing breakaway movement is embracing it.

Metropolitan Epifany, head of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine which split from Moscow in 2019, fully supports the change. His branch is quickly gaining followers, as many Ukrainians view Onufriy as overly deferential to Russia.

This decision gives us the opportunity to celebrate Christmas with the rest of the Christian world,” Epifany told Ukrainian media, “…and to feel that we are part of a great Christian family.”

The uncertainty has left many clergy scrambling to rework holiday schedules. But Father Pavlo Serbun of St. Nicholas Church in Kyiv was resolute: “This year, all Christians celebrate Christmas on December 25th… I don’t care what the Moscow patriarch decides regarding the date.”

International Support

Ukraine’s Western allies rallied behind the Christmas Day change as a bold step towards religious freedom. In a holiday video message, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen hailed Ukrainians’ “fantastic resolve and courage.”

US President Joe Biden also delivered a message praising Zelenskyy’s leadership and reassuring Ukraine of continued American assistance. “You remind us that freedom and democracy are precious gifts… worth fighting for,” he stated.

Pope Francis included Ukraine in his Christmas blessings, wishing “comfort to the Ukrainian people.” He praised Ukrainians’ solidarity and urged, “Please, let us not get used to war!”

World Leader Message Quote
Ursula von der Leyen “Your fantastic resolve and courage are an inspiration to us all”
Joe Biden “Freedom and democracy are precious gifts…worth fighting for”
Pope Francis “Please, let us not get used to war!”

Table 1: Quotes from international Christmas messages to Ukraine

The outpouring of global support reflects growing unity behind Ukraine against Russia’s unprovoked aggression. As President Zelenskyy stated, “We feel your support, we feel your care – it inspires us to fight on to victory which will certainly come in 2023.”

Significance and Lasting Impact

While a date change may seem merely symbolic, experts argue it carries deep significance. By delinking Ukrainian traditions from Russia, it spurs a national and cultural reawakening with both domestic and geopolitical ripple effects.

Domestically, it cements December 25th as the new standard Christmas date. With the splintering Orthodox Church increasingly aligning celebrations with the Western date, this new norm will likely persist even after the war ends.

Geopolitically, it represents Ukraine’s irrevocable break from Russian religious authority. As President Zelenskyy noted, Ukraine is undergoing a national revival “based on our culture, language and church independence.” This determines Ukraine’s eventual identity – either as part of Moscow’s orbit or integrated with Western institutions.

Ultimately, according to analyst Volodymyr Fesenko, [“This is about the Ukrainian people’s right to their own civilization…Ukrainian identity will prevail over Russia’s imperialist ambitions.

Outlook for Orthodox Christmas on January 7th

While December 25th takes hold as Ukraine’s main Christmas holiday, January 7th retains cultural significance as Ukrainian Orthodox Christmas under the Julian calendar. However, celebrations in early January are set to be heavily muted by the ongoing war.

With martial law bans on large gatherings still in effect, major public celebrations will be limited. Russian missile strikes also continue to threaten civilian areas, making any return to normalcy impossible.

Politically, Moscow seems intent on disrupting Ukraine’s early January celebrations as retaliation for spurning Russian religious dominance. The Kremlin may order heightened missile attacks around Orthodox Christmas, continuing its terror campaign against Ukrainian civilians.

Indeed, missile bombardments could escalate leading up to and following January 7th. Analysts warn the period around Ukrainian Orthodox Christmas is an “interval of high danger”, when “Putin’s desire for revenge will rise.” With Putin’s forces increasingly targeting civilian infrastructure, Ukrainians are bracing for a turbulent holiday season.

While Orthodox Christmas will lack its normal festive trappings this January, many Ukrainians still cherish the holiday for its religious meaning. As one Kyiv resident noted, “For me, Christmas is in the soul…I’ll be in church no matter what.” Wherever Ukrainians gather this January 7th – in homes, churches or even bomb shelters – they are sure to uphold the Orthodox holiday as an enduring symbol of Ukrainian faith and identity.

Conclusion

This December 25th represents a watershed moment for Ukraine, consecrating a break from Russian religious authority after centuries of control. While muted under wartime conditions, Christmas takes on special meaning in 2023 as Ukrainians celebrate the holiday date officially for the first time.

The shift to December 25th will likely persist as a new Ukrainian tradition representing the country’s alignment with Western institutions. Meanwhile January 7th retains significance as Ukrainian Orthodox Christmas, even if celebrations are heavily constrained by Russia’s continuing attacks.

Most importantly, as President Zelenskyy noted, this year’s Christmas “proves that millions of people fight for sacred human values”. By defiantly celebrating their faith and identity this season, Ukrainians reveal an indomitable spirit that even Russia’s missiles cannot break.

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AiBot scans breaking news and distills multiple news articles into a concise, easy-to-understand summary which reads just like a news story, saving users time while keeping them well-informed.

To err is human, but AI does it too. Whilst factual data is used in the production of these articles, the content is written entirely by AI. Double check any facts you intend to rely on with another source.

By AiBot

AiBot scans breaking news and distills multiple news articles into a concise, easy-to-understand summary which reads just like a news story, saving users time while keeping them well-informed.

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