BOBRYTSIA, Ukraine (HPD) — Ukrainians usually celebrate Christmas on Jan. 7, just like Russians. But not this year, or at least not all.
Some Orthodox Ukrainians have decided to celebrate Christmas on December 25, like many Christians around the world. Yes, this has to do with the war, and yes, you have the blessing of your local church.
The idea of commemorating the birth of Jesus in December was considered radical in Ukraine until now, but the Russian invasion changed the opinion and sentiment of many.
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 it on December 25.
The choice of dates has clear political and religious connotations, in a country with two rival Orthodox churches and where small revisions to the rites can carry a strong symbolic charge in the cultural war that is being waged in parallel to the battles.
For some people, changing the date is a separation from Russia, its culture and its religion. In a town on the outskirts of kyiv, people recently voted to move up their Christmas celebrations.
“What started on February 24, the full-scale invasion, is a wake-up call and an understanding that we can no longer be part of the Russian world,” said Olena Paliy, a 33-year-old resident of Bobrytsia.
The Russian Orthodox Church, which claims authority over the Orthodox in Ukraine, and other Eastern Orthodox churches continue to use the old Julian calendar. In that calendar, Christmas falls 13 days after the Gregorian calendar used by most churches and secular groups, that is, on January 7.
The Catholic Church first adopted the more modern and astronomically accurate Gregorian calendar in the 16th century. Protestants and some Orthodox churches have also aligned their calendars to calculate the date of Christmas.
The Synod of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church decreed in October that rectors of local churches could choose the date together with their communities, noting that the decision followed years of talks but was also a result of the circumstances of the war.
In Bobrytsia, some parishioners proposed a change in the local congregation, which recently transitioned to join the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, with no ties to Russia. When the vote was held 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 because in our history, we have never had the same Christmas celebration dates in Ukraine as the whole Christian world. The whole time we were apart,” said Roman Ivanenko, a local Bobrytsia official and one of the promoters of the change. Now, he said, they are “breaking that connection” with the Russians.
“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 town. For him, his Church does not have to be associated with “darkness and sorrow and with the 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 supported recognition of a national church along with Ukraine’s political independence from the former Soviet Union had long sought such authorization.
The Russian Orthodox Church and its leader, Patriarch Cyril, strongly protested the decision, saying 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 war broke out. It declared its independence in May, though it remains under government scrutiny. That church traditionally celebrated Christmas on January 7.
Arhirova reported from kyiv, Ukraine. Associated Press religion correspondent Peter Smith contributed from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.