That would put many of Ukraine’s Orthodox faithful at odds with the practice of other members of Eastern Orthodoxy who celebrate Christmas on January 7 (according to the old Julian calendar). But that is precisely the point.
“Many Ukrainians are now moving towards celebrating Christmas on December 25. And that is natural, because it is part of our European choice,” Serhiy Prytula, a Ukrainian philanthropist and television personality, told me. “We were always part of Europe before Soviet rule, so it is obvious and logical that people in Ukraine are ready and willing to celebrate Christmas together with the European family of nations to which we historically belong.” A recent survey shows that the number of Ukrainians willing to adopt the Western date increased from 26 to 44 percent over the past year.
For Prytula and others, January 7 symbolizes a version of orthodoxy they would rather leave behind: of the type represented by the Russian Orthodox Churchthe pet name of Vladimir Putin, that self-proclaimed scourge of Ukrainian national identity.
Over the years, Patriarch Kirill, leader of the Moscow-based church, has developed a symbiotic relationship with the Russian president. Putin floods the church with money and favors and presents it as the ideological core of the “russian world”, his vision of an imperial culture uniting Russian-speakers across national borders. In return, Kirill gives Putin a valuable sheen of legitimacy, never more visible than during the current war. The henchmen of the Moscow Patriarchate have justified the invasion by describing Ukraine as the “Antichrist”, the embodiment of the demonic opposition to Putin’s government. Meanwhile, members of the Russian officer corps they have started calling the invasion a “holy war”.
The Orthodox churches of Ukraine, which together claim the allegiance of 80 percent of the country’s 43 million people are no longer willing to let Kirill call the shots. The OCU, which issued the finding at Christmas, has long pursued an independent course. but the rival Ukrainian Orthodox Churchwhich concentrates most of the country’s Orthodox believers, has gone from recognizing the supremacy of Moscow just a few years ago to break all ties in May. (That hasn’t saved him from under scrutiny from Kyiv’s security services, who fear the church may be acting as a fifth column).
And yes, religious politics in Ukraine can be mind-bogglingly complex. Alfons Bruening, a scholar of Eastern European Christianity at Radboud University in the Netherlands, says the country’s religious diversity means East-West distinctions are sometimes blurred. “Many in the Ukraine celebrate Christmas twice,” he writes in an email. “It’s a matter of pragmatism quite typical of Ukraine, as a multi-religious country.”
However, it is striking that Russian propagandists choose to portray this diversity as a vice, mocking The Kyiv army as a collection of “fighters against Orthodoxy” whose leaders include (horrors!) “Protestants, Uniates [Greek Catholics] and atheists.” The same writer denounced Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s offer of a truce around December 25 “because the leadership of the Russian army is orthodox and for them Christmas is January 7.”
Ukrainians respond with a contemptuous shrug. “My family made the change [to Western Christmas] 10 years ago”, says political consultant Yevhen Hlibovytsky. “And many other friends have since. This is the year that many, many others will follow.”
The December 25 embrace reflects a broader cultural, political, and economic reorientation. In 2013, tens of thousands of Ukrainians took to the streets to protest the decision of then-President Viktor Yanukovych to scrap an economic cooperation agreement with the European Union. Yanukovych’s subsequent downfall led Putin to seize Crimea and send Russian troops into eastern Ukraine in 2014.
Since then, however, the Kremlin’s aggressiveness has only accelerated Ukrainians’ determination to reject everything it stands for. Close economic and political ties to Europe are now taken for granted. Politicians who were once ardently pro-Russian have been transformed into Ukrainian patriots. And Ukraine’s once-tentative military cooperation with the West has reached a scale unimaginable just 12 months ago.
The war has also prompted almost 8 million Ukrainians to seek refuge in places in the European Union and beyond, which is likely to further entrench pro-Western sentiment.
So pay attention as Ukrainians prepare for the holidays amid the cold, darkness, death and suffering imposed on them by the Putin regime. This year, Christmas will not be a routine party. It will give Ukrainians one more chance to make an emphatic statement about who they are and their determination to survive as a nation.