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‘The time is right for change’: More Ukrainians celebrating Christmas on Dec. 25 this year

by Kate Tsurkan December 24, 2023 7:32 PM 8 min read
Ukrainian serviceman and his son look at traditional folk masks as part of an interactive Christmas exhibition during its opening at Kyiv central railway station on Dec. 21, 2023, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine. (SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP via Getty Images)
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Ukrainian author Yevheniia Zavalii started celebrating Christmas on Dec. 25 back in 2014, “when the rejection of everything Russian” began in her life.  

Undeterred by criticism from some people that she was breaking away from the traditions of her ancestors and the church, Zavalii stood by her decision.

“And this year, I believe most of my social circle will also finally adopt this tradition,” she told the Kyiv Independent.

Ukraine’s Orthodox Christians have long celebrated Christmas on Jan. 6-7. in accordance with the Julian calendar, but this year, the independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) approved a transition to the revised Julian calendar that came into effect on Sept. 1.

This means that they will officially celebrate Christmas on Dec. 24-25 going forward, as the revised Julian calendar is closer to the Gregorian calendar, the latter of which is used by the majority of the world.

The country’s Greek Catholics made the switch to the Gregorian calendar and will also celebrate in December this year.

More than 70% of Ukrainians identify as Orthodox Christians, according to data collected by the Razumkov Center in 2022. By choosing to celebrate Christmas in December, they are making the step to further distance themselves from the Orthodox Christians of Russia, who celebrate in January.

“Our calendar, holiday, and church were stolen from us (in generations prior) by Russia,” Zavalii explained. “Now we are just reclaiming what is rightfully ours.”

Another form of independence

The importance of Ukraine celebrating Christmas on a different day than Russia is more of a cultural matter than a religious one, according to Ukrainians who have made the switch.

“Following the full-scale invasion, efforts to promote Ukrainization have increased significantly, with the topic of Christmas playing a role in these discussions. It’s important that we celebrate together with the civilized world and what values we emphasize,” Zavalii said.

“Russia launches missile and drone attacks not only on major holidays; it happens all the time. We want to be with our loved ones and do good deeds. That's why we simply cannot celebrate Christmas on the same day as them. It's not right.”

Mykola, a servicemember of the Armed Forces of Ukraine who asked to only be identified by first name, told the Kyiv Independent that his family will also celebrate on Dec. 25 this year, although they had supported the idea of transitioning to the revised Julian calendar even before the start of the full-scale invasion.

After February of 2022, there was no need to discuss it.

“I have an aunt who continues to follow the old calendar, but I think for her personally, it’s more related to her political views rather than religious ones,” he said. “We have almost entirely ceased communication since the beginning of the war.”

Some of the Ukrainians who are opposed to the calendar change as well as the changes of the religious order say that religion should be kept separate from politics. However, the majority of Ukrainians recognize that Russia has strategically used religion as one of its tools to incite division in its war against Ukraine.

A survey conducted by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology in December 2022 showed that 54% of Ukrainians believed the Russian-backed Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP) should be banned.  

The Razumkov Center and the Democratic Initiatives Foundation also found in a March 2023 survey that more than 50% of Ukrainians in nearly every region of the country believed to varying degrees that the UOC-MP played a significant role in promoting “soft power” narratives on Russia’s behalf.

Despite the UOC-MP’s claim of having denounced ties with Russia after the full-scale invasion, its church leaders have been sentenced by Ukrainian authorities for spying on behalf of Russia and have even blessed Russian soldiers during the occupation.

When the Orthodox Church of Ukraine was officially granted autocephaly in 2019, other Eastern Orthodox Churches recognized it as the true independent church in Ukraine.

This is something that earlier generations of religious leaders in Ukraine tried and ultimately failed to achieve. In the early 20th century, following the collapse of the Russian Empire, Ukrainians pushed for state and religious independence. When the Soviets came to power, widespread persecution campaigns hindered such efforts.

The Soviet policy toward religion was generally hostile. However, there were periods during Soviet rule when party-approved interpretations of Christmas that steered the message of the holiday away from faith were permitted.

Members of the Russian Orthodox Church who collaborated with the Soviet authorities continued some of their activities across the Soviet Union, allowing them to establish a stronghold over time.

When Ukraine regained its independence in 1991, the UOC-MP was the most influential and widespread church operating in the country, and most Ukrainians celebrated Christmas in January, the same time as Orthodox Christians in Russia.

The OCU’s calendar transition contends with the stereotype that celebrating Christmas on Dec. 25 is exclusive to Catholics, a misinterpretation that Russian religious circles have pushed for years.

Following the revised Julian calendar, Ukraine will join some other predominantly Orthodox Christian countries in celebrating on Dec. 25, including Romania, Bulgaria, Greece, and Cyprus.

However, the OCU has stressed that no church parish should force its implementation this year. This means that Ukrainians are embracing new Christmas traditions this year at their own pace.

Nearly 45% of Ukrainians have chosen to celebrate Christmas exclusively on Dec. 25 this year, according to a recent survey released by Deloitte. Thirty-two percent of Ukrainians plan to celebrate it on both Dec. 25 and Jan. 7, while 17% want to continue celebrating it exclusively on Jan. 7.

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'The time is right for change'

Amid the ongoing debates about when to celebrate Christmas, Ukrainians are navigating which holiday traditions to preserve and which new ones to introduce while also striving to maintain a sense of harmony within their families.

Zavalii shared that she makes a habit of attending classical concerts or charity fairs, as well as baking ginger cookies or stollen, a German sweet bread, which she shares with her friends.

Oksana Chmil and Andriy Tuzhykov, a couple in Chernivtsi, told the Kyiv Independent they started celebrating Christmas on Dec. 25 last year, but just like their parents and grandparents, they’ll continue to prepare kutia, uzvar, and other traditional dishes for Christmas Eve, and go caroling on Christmas Day.

For some families, celebrating Christmas on Dec. 25 is a matter of returning to old traditions.

“My mom told me that my grandmother remembered a time when Christmas was celebrated on Dec. 25. It changed after World War II, and for a while, they celebrated Christmas both ways, according to the old and the new calendars,” Tuzhykov, whose family is from Chernivtsi, said.

“This year, we view Dec. 25 as our youthful Christmas,” Chmil said. “We see it as a more personal celebration for us and our friends who will also be celebrating on Dec. 25. But on this day, I plan to shower my family with greetings and carols so they can feel the Christmas spirit.”

In addition to inviting older family members over on Dec. 25 to make them feel welcomed, Chmil said she plans to visit them on Jan. 7 because it can be “difficult for them to accept such changes.”

Her family, who hails from Rivne Oblast, only remembers celebrating Christmas on Jan. 7. But as she explained, the Russian Empire and later the Soviet Union were able to exert their influence over the region for a longer period than a region like Chernivtsi.

Chernivtsi became part of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1944, although the Red Army and the Russian Imperial Army attempted to occupy the city for periods of time during the chaos of both world wars. Prior to that, Chernivtsi residents had long lived under the rule of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and later the Kingdom of Romania.

Rivne fell under the control of the Russian Empire in the late 18th century. It switched hands during the world wars but became part of the Soviet Union after World War II.

“Out of respect for my older relatives, I'll also visit them on Jan. 7,” Chmil said. “After all, they had the opportunity to pass on a festive atmosphere on the day they're accustomed to. We’ll have two Christmases this year.”

In other parts of the world, some of the Ukrainian diaspora also find themselves celebrating Christmas for the first time this year on Dec. 25.

Growing up in downtown New York’s East Village, which was historically dubbed the “Ukrainian Village” due to the prominent number of Ukrainian diaspora residing there, artist Sofika Zielyk said that for Ukrainians celebrating Christmas in January, it used to feel like “their secret.”

The holiday season always started with Ukrainian children waking up on the morning of Dec. 19 to presents left under their pillows overnight by Saint Nicholas, typically some sweets or a small toy.

Zielyk’s family would put up their Christmas tree on Dec. 23-24 and spend Dec. 25. decorating it. When they celebrated Christmas later on Jan. 6-7, it never involved Santa Claus or the commercial flair that characterized the celebrations of their non-Ukrainian neighbors.

“Christmas is a holy day,” she explained. “It’s about celebrating the birth of Jesus and the whole family coming together.”

“Our non-Ukrianian neighbors always wished us a Merry Ukrainian Christmas. I loved having what felt like this special holiday that belonged only to Ukrainians.”

Zielyk’s family continued to follow the old calendar until the OCU announced the transition to the revised Julian calendar. When her local parish made the decision to implement the changes this year, she and her family supported it.

The January celebrations of past years will always have a special place in Zielyk’s heart, she said. But she believes the time is right for change, even if it requires an adjustment period.

“Apparently, nobody told our local grocery store about the switch,” she laughed. “They always had a large supply of sauerkraut handy in early January for making varenyky. This year, they’ve already run out!”

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Note from the author:

Hi, this is Kate Tsurkan, sharing an important culture-related story from Ukraine. Due to Russia’s ongoing genocide, most stories about Ukrainian culture will, unfortunately, be related to war for years to come. But Ukrainian culture is finding ways to persevere and it's important to share these stories.

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