When is Christmas in Ukraine? Now more than ever, it depends on who you ask.
Traditionally, Ukrainians have followed the Orthodox Christian calendar and have celebrated Christmas on January 7th. According to a 2015 poll by Pew, 78% of Ukrainians identify as Orthodox Christians, with the Russian Orthodox Church having a huge presence all of over the country. My wife’s family, a family filled with Kremlin-hating patriots who live in a town that’s only about 15 miles from Slovakia, are members of a Russian Orthodox Church. Religion in Ukraine isn’t divided between East vs. Central vs. West, like with language. Instead, Russian Orthodoxy has dominated the religious sphere in Ukraine for hundreds of years.
Recently, Ukrainians have been trying to change that.
In 2019, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church officially split from their Russian counterpart, in a fairly monumental step outside of Russia’s shadow. Of course, it was an important move for Ukrainians to have their religion align with an independent Ukrainian identity, but one could argue the move was more about repelling Russian state ideology and propaganda from inside of the country.
The Russian Orthodox Church has been closely linked to the Kremlin for years, but now with the war it has become more visible than ever. Patriarch Kirill, who is closely aligned with the Kremlin, has spent the past decade spreading the message of Russia’s “holy war” against the west. The Church supported Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and it’s not uncommon for Russian priests to give pro-Kremlin sermons, per the Wall Street Journal. Just in April Putin thanked Patriarch Kirill for “developing fruitful cooperation with the state.”
The Russian Church for years has been one of many tools in the Kremlin’s propaganda machine, and has stepped up the messaging since February. In the first few months of the war, Patriarch Kirill expressed that Russians need to “repel its enemies, both external and internal”, compared fighting Ukraine to fighting the Nazis in WWII, and even went so far as to say that Russian soldiers dying in Ukraine will be cleansed of their sins.
This pro-Kremlin, pro-Russian presence has been alive and well in Ukraine, even after its independence in 1991. As much as some Ukrainians want to establish a new identity separate from Russia, one can imagine how difficult it is to get millions of people to give up their religion, a religion that has possibly been in their family for centuries, all in the name of Ukrainian statehood.
Due to the war, that has gotten a lot easier. A lot.
On December 2nd, President Zelensky signed a decree to ban Russia-affiliated religious groups from practicing in Ukraine. To ban them! Additionally, over the past month, Russian Monasteries and Churches have been raided by Ukrainian authorities. As the Kyiv Independent reported, Ukrainian authorities found, “Russian propaganda and xenophobic literature, Russian passports belonging to senior clergy, and documents with pro-Russian ideological messages at the premises of the Russian-backed church.”
It’s one thing for the Ukrainian Orthodox church to break away from its Russian counterpart, but banning Russian Orthodoxy and raiding their churches is a drastic step in ridding their influence. These sorts of drastic actions would be unimaginable before the war, but a lot of things were unimaginable before the war. This tragedy has given the Ukrainian government much more leeway to make moves like this, when in the past it would have been seen as too aggressive and too far for many parts of Ukrainian society.
With all this said, let’s take a look at why Ukrainians are starting to rethink Christmas. In October, the Ukrainian Orthodox Chruch agreed to allow members to celebrate on the 25th, and the reasoning why is pretty cut and dry. Take a look at this map, provided by user Udzu on reddit.
It paints a pretty clear picture: Ukraine is aspiring towards more Western and European values and wants to completely distance itself from Russia. As you can see, the blue places that Ukraine is aspiring to be like celebrate on December 25th, and the big green place that Ukraine hates celebrates on January 7th.
What I find the most interesting is that the fellow Slavic and Eastern European countries that are the closest to Ukraine – Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Czech Republic – are all celebrating on the 25th as well. I know a few Ukrainians who have moved to Poland, and it was surprising that a country as ideologically and culturally similar to Ukraine celebrates Christmas on a completely different calendar month.
It’s also fascinating that the Ukrainian Orthodox church is “allowing” its members to celebrate on the 25th. I mean, they are still Orthodox, so Christmas is still on January 7th, but that’s beside the point: Ukraine’s taking the opportunity to drive out Russian influence from their country, and personally, I couldn’t be more supportive. From the Russian Church’s anti-Ukrainian sermons, to their pro-war ideology, to their support of the annexation of Crimea, to Russian propaganda being spread within the walls of their monasteries, you can’t blame Ukraine for wanting to get rid of that sort of thing.
Now, it’s one thing to say that Christmas is on a different day, but are people actually going to follow through with this change? Well, from the anecdotal conversations I’ve had with my Ukrainian friends and students, it sounds like many social movements in Ukraine, where there is an inevitable generational divide. It makes sense why – My wife is super down to celebrate with me on the 25th, but even though her family is in the far west and is as pro-Ukraine as they come, it’s hard for them to just turn off a tradition that they’ve had for their entire life.
Imagine if all of a sudden, the government was like, “Christmas is at the end of November now.” It would feel weird, no matter how good the reason was.
With that said, I think that while it might take some time, the widespread acceptance of moving Christmas to December 25th is inevitable. On top of that, I think that the transition to the 25th might be easier for Ukrainians than if the West moved their Christmas to November, because there’s a fundamental difference in how Christmas is celebrated in Ukraine vs. in the West.
In Ukraine, gifts aren’t exchanged on Christmas. New Years is actually the big gift exchange holiday, and is combined with the traditional New Years traditions of drinking champagne and counting down the clock. New Years is like a mega-winter holiday and is by far the biggest holiday in the country. January 7th Christmas is more like Easter – an important religious holiday for those that celebrate, but as far as celebrations go it consists of going to church and eating a big meal, and doesn’t exactly capture the holiday spirit of the whole country. There’s a special bread that is made, which is a pretty cool tradition, but comparing January 7th to New Years in Ukraine is like if the West compared Easter to December 25th – there’s no debate which holiday has more widespread cultural significance.
If you celebrate Easter, try to think about it – would you really mind if it was moved to early March? Maybe you would, and sure it would be weird, but in a year full of monumental change, celebrating Christmas 13 days earlier might be one of the more normal transitions, not to mention one that brings Ukraine closer to its existential goals.
For some, moving to the 25th will be a seamless transition. Others in the older generations will always celebrate on January 7th, but in my eyes, it’s clear that over the course of a few generations, at a certain point Ukrainians might not even realize it was celebrated on January 7th in the first place.