Orthodox church of Ukraine allows worshippers to celebrate Christmas on 25 December

Move away from traditional date of 7 January directed against pro-Putin head of Russian Orthodox church

For centuries Ukrainians have celebrated Christmas on 7 January, the date on which Jesus was born, according to the Julian calendar.

But following Vladimir Putin’s invasion in February, the Orthodox church of Ukraine is allowing its congregations for the first time to celebrate Christmas on 25 December, in a move away from Russia and towards the west.

The issue of when to celebrate Christmas has been a matter of longstanding debate in Ukraine.

The church has traditionally observed Christmas on 7 January, at the same time as the Moscow patriarchy, which has blessed Putin’s war. Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox church, is a prominent Putin supporter and has said Russian soldiers who are killed will be cleansed of all their sins.

In 2017, 25 December became a public holiday in Ukraine. The country’s Orthodox church has previously allowed prayers to be said on the date.

At a meeting of its synod in October, and following requests, the Kyiv Metropolitanate announced that parishes could hold a full religious service on the 25th if they wished. The decision affects about 7,000 churches across the country.

In an interview with the Guardian, the church’s spokesperson, archbishop Yevstratiy Zoria, said data would be collected to see how many worshippers attended services on the 25th, which this year falls on a Sunday.

“We don’t want to force anyone. We understand that doesn’t resolve anything,” he said. “I personally will decide what to do after talking with my parishioners. It’s better to promote this process slowly and successfully.”

Patriarch Kirill and Vladimir Putin at an Easter service in Moscow in 2016
Patriarch Kirill and Vladimir Putin at an Easter service in Moscow in 2016. Photograph: Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP/Getty Images

Before Russia’s full-scale invasion, a third of parishioners wanted to move to a western Christmas, he said. The archbishop acknowledged support was now higher.

Since 2019, 1,600 parishes have joined the Orthodox church of Ukraine from the Ukrainian Orthodox church, which until recently was loyal to the Moscow patriarchy. It has now distanced itself from Patriarch Kirill, with about half of dioceses no longer mentioning him in prayers.

The two churches bear similar names. President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s predecessor, Petro Poroshenko, tried to force the Ukrainian Orthodox church to legally rename itself the Russian Orthodox church in Ukraine.

The attempt failed after the pro-Kremlin Opposition Bloc party – now outlawed – appealed to the constitutional court. Zoria said the Orthodox church of Ukraine backed Ukraine’s statehood, independence, sovereignty and democracy.

The move to 25 December is part of a bigger national process of dismantling the symbols of Russia, the Soviet Union and communism, which took off in 2014 when Putin annexed Crimea and kickstarted a pro-Moscow uprising in the eastern Donbas region.

Lenin statues were pulled down. Ukraine’s culture ministry has appointed an expert council to decide what to do with other Soviet monuments and streets named after Russian cultural figures including Pushkin and Tolstoy.

“We don’t call it de-Russification. It’s about dealing with the consequences of Russian totalitarianism,” the culture minister, Oleksandr Tkachenko, said last week.

He added: “We’ve had a number of meetings. Local opinion will be taken into consideration. Some monuments could be moved to parks and museums.”

In the Black Sea port of Odesa, activists daubed a statue of Catherine the Great with red paint and added a noose.

An illuminated Christmas tree in front of St Sophia’s Cathedral in central Kyiv in December 2021
An illuminated Christmas tree in front of St Sophia’s Cathedral in central Kyiv in December 2021. Photograph: Efrem Lukatsky/AP

Taras Pshenychnyi, a professor of church history at Kyiv’s Taras Shevchenko University, said his students had spontaneously raised the topic of Christmas and were in favour of shifting it to 25 December.

But he said older people including his parents were reluctant to change to the Gregorian model, introduced by Pope Gregory in 1582. This year his family including his six-year-old son would celebrate on both dates, he said.

In the 16th and 17th centuries some Ukrainian Uniate bishops tried to move to the Gregorian date, which Poland and other European Catholic countries had adopted. They were unsuccessful.

At the time, Ukraine was a part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. It stuck with the Julian calendar, in which New Year is celebrated on 14 January.

Between 1914 and 1916, as the first world war raged, a diocese in the western city of Ivano-Frankivsk introduced the 25 December date. The change ran into opposition from traditionalists, the intelligentsia and a powerful Russian Orthodox church.

After the Russian Revolution, the Bolsheviks moved to a Gregorian calendar for civil purposes, but the Moscow patriarchy carried on as before.

A Christmas bauble hanging on a branch in front of a destroyed house near Kyiv in March
A Christmas bauble hanging on a branch in front of a destroyed house near Kyiv in March. Photograph: Gleb Garanich/Reuters

Pshenychnyi said: “Tradition can be progressive or regressive. We need to depart from Russian cultural and mental traditions. They keep us hostage.

“It needs to be done cautiously, but it has to be done. Russia is using its Orthodox parishes on Ukrainian territory as an ideological weapon.”

Patriarch Kirill was associated with the KGB and Russia’s modern FSB spy agency, which is an “adroit propaganda organisation”, he said.

Kremlin politicians have portrayed the war in Ukraine as an eschatological showdown between good and evil. Dmitry Medvedev, Russia’s former president and deputy security council chair, frequently uses biblical allusions. He has threatened to finish the west in a nuclear Armageddon.

In his latest outburst on Friday, he said Russia’s “sacred goal” in Ukraine was to stop the Devil, or the “supreme ruler of hell”, as he called him. He dubbed Ukrainians as “a large pack of barking dogs from the western kennel”.

Pshenychnyi said he did not pay too much attention to Russia’s increasingly apocalyptic rhetoric, which includes claims Moscow is “de-Satanising” Kyiv.

“It’s one of many fakes Russia has been doing for the past eight years,” the professor said.

“For ages, they have been trying to formulate some kind of image for Ukraine. Yesterday we weren’t a state. Today we are Satan. It’s idiotic, and from a bunch of weak-minded people.”


Luke Harding and Artem Mazhulin in Kyiv

The GuardianTramp

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