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Ukrainians celebrate 'double Christmas' in the shadow of Russia's brutal war

by Asami Terajima January 7, 2023 6:31 PM 5 min read
A priest leads an Orthodox Christmas service at St Michael's Golden-Domed Monastery in Kyiv on Jan. 7, 2023. (Photo by Sameer Al-Doumy/AFP via Getty Images)
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Kyiv – Hundreds of kilometers from battles raging in the country's east and south, Ukrainians in Kyiv celebrate Christmas twice to cherish precious moments with their loved ones.

While Christmas is widely celebrated across the world on Dec. 25, Orthodox worshippers traditionally mark the festival on Jan. 7 instead. In Ukraine, both days are national holidays, giving Ukrainians the opportunity to enjoy two Christmases within a span of two weeks.

There is a vibrant atmosphere throughout the Ukrainian capital despite Russia's war in Ukraine being far from over.

Kyiv's cozy restaurants and cafes are playing Christmas music, and many of them have put up holiday decorations.

With 2022 being a tough year, Ukrainians were determined to cherish moments of quietness with hopes that Russia, which also celebrates Eastern Orthodox Christmas on Jan. 7, wouldn't launch yet another missile strike on Kyiv – or other cities where their loved ones live.

For Yulia Sova, 31, a short holiday trip to Kyiv from her temporary base in western Ukraine felt necessary as she dealt with the emotional scars of fleeing her home twice due to Russia's war.

When Russia occupied her native city of Luhansk in eastern Ukraine in 2014, Sova fled to Sievierodonetsk, an industrial city in the same region.

She lived there until Russian troops occupied her second home in June 2022.

While Sova is unable to meet most of her friends who are spread across Ukraine or still living in largely occupied Luhansk Oblast, she felt it important to keep close with a few that she is still in touch with.

Sova came to Kyiv to meet a school friend from Luhansk.

She said she desperately wants to celebrate the holidays in either of the two cities she previously lived in before Russia occupied them, cooking traditional Christmas dishes with her family.

"We would have cooked a delicious dinner and celebrated it with the family," Sova, a state institution employee, told the Kyiv Independent.

Sova said she marked Christmas on Dec. 25 for the first time in 2022, but she plans to celebrate it again on Jan. 7 since it's the tradition.

"This year, I (also) wanted to celebrate it on Dec. 25," Sova said. "So it's a double Christmas."

Two Christmases

Every year, more Ukrainians, including Orthodox Christians, began celebrating Christmas on Dec. 25 amid an ongoing movement to distance themselves from Russia and its church.

Despite the whole world using the Gregorian calendar, the Russian Orthodox Church is among the few institutions still using the obsolete Julian calendar, which runs 13 days behind, explaining the 13-day gap between Catholic and Orthodox Christmas.

After Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, and the Russian Orthodox Church supported the invasion, Ukrainians began to seek a change in their century-long tradition.

In 2022, the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) allowed worshippers for the first time to celebrate Christmas on Dec. 25 if they prefer the Western date more.

Some 54% of Ukrainians identify themselves as worshipers of the independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine, according to a survey published in August by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology (KIIS).

In 2017, Dec. 25 was approved as a national holiday by the parliament.

The percentage of Ukrainians who support shifting the date of Christmas to Dec. 25 has grown from 26% to 44% in a year, according to survey results published by the Rating Group in December.

However, since Jan. 7 is traditionally Christmas for Ukrainians, they still celebrate it on this day despite the increasing popularity of the shift in date.

Many support the idea of a double Christmas to preserve generations-old traditions of celebrating the holiday on Jan. 7.

Student Marharyta Ilnytska, 17, and her partner Oleksii Bilous, 21, who serves in the military, are also among those who favor keeping the Jan. 7 Christmas tradition.

The young couple plans to spend Jan. 7 learning about Christmas and New Year traditions in Ukraine.

"Now, it is very important to understand our own culture," Ilnytska told the Kyiv Independent.

The couple said that while celebrating both Christmases, they keep the celebrations modest because Ukrainian soldiers are risking their lives to defend their country.

They spent the first Christmas at home with their family and the second together, strolling around central Kyiv.

"We got used to celebrating two Christmases," Ilnytska said.

"I generally believe that it is wrong to change one's traditions, which have been around for centuries," Ilnytska added.

Meanwhile, Russian troops continued to wage war against Ukraine on the battlefield despite Moscow's said 36-hour-long ceasefire over the Orthodox Christmas.

The fighting continued at "a routine level," with some of the fiercest fighting taking place around the city of Bakhmut in Donetsk Oblast and the town of Kreminna in Luhansk Oblast, according to the U.K. Defense Ministry.

Orthodox Church of Ukraine holds church service at Kyiv Pechersk Lavra for the first time.

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