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KYIV — Ukraine’s Orthodox worshippers have always celebrated Christmas on January 7 — but that will change for many this year, with the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) for the first time allowing its congregations to celebrate on December 25.
This move creates a dividing line with Russia, which celebrates on January 7, and is likely to widen a rift between Ukraine’s two feuding churches.
In 2018, the OCU split from the similarly named Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC), which is seen as politically linked to Moscow and is facing public demands for its closure amid accusations that it is a hotbed of fifth columnists — that is, people who support and secretly help the enemies of the country they live in.
Indeed, the OCU’s decision to allow a shift of Christmas observance to December 25 (for those who want to) has already infuriated the Russian-oriented UOC.
“We are giving people the option to celebrate on a different day,” said Archbishop Yevstratiy Zoria of the OCU in Kyiv.
Yevstratiy told POLITICO there had been a groundswell for a change since 2017, when December 25 became a public holiday in Ukraine. Many of the church’s adherents had lobbied for a move away from the Julian calendar, which is observed by the Russian Orthodox Church.
The calls for the switch have only grown louder since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, prompting the OCU to allow its 7,000 parishes to hold full religious services on December 25, if desired.
According to Yevstratiy, already before the invasion, more than a third of Ukrainians wanted to change to the Gregorian calendar. “The numbers are probably higher now, and we are having an experiment to try to understand what worshippers really want,” he said.
“We are not moving the day of Christmas,” he added. “This will be an additional day of worship,” with celebrations held in accordance with the official Julian church calendar.
In the meantime, the church will “consider what to do in the future, and we will observe closely how many congregations take up the opportunity to celebrate on December 25,” Yevstratiy continued.
Despite opposition from the Kremlin and the Russian Orthodox Church, in 2019 the OCU was granted ecclesiastical independence by Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople — considered the spiritual leader of Orthodox believers worldwide. His decision revoked a centuries-old agreement that granted the patriarch in Moscow authority over the church in Ukraine.
Political differences underpin the the split between the churches of the predominantly Orthodox nation: Western-oriented OCU churches offered support to the Maidan protesters of 2014, which toppled Viktor Yanukovych, Moscow’s viceroy in Ukraine. Over recent years, the church been a strong advocate of Ukrainian statehood and sovereignty.
The Russian-tied UOC claimed in May to have ended its subordination to Moscow’s Metropolitan Kirill, a vociferous supporter of Russian President Vladimir Putin — although few believe the split is sincere. The church’s spokesperson, Metropolitan Klyment, dismissed as a political stunt the OCU’s decision to allow its congregants to celebrate on December 25, claiming it as evidence of how the rival church is not a religious institution but a political organization eager to do the government’s bidding.
“Families historically are used to celebrating on [January 7],” he told POLITICO. “The people who go to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church are not requesting any change,” he said. “It has been four years since the government announced December 25 as an official holiday, and since then, you have not seen people celebrating it as Christmas Day,” he added.
The Kyiv-headquartered UOC dismisses the charge that its decision to allow congregations to celebrate Christmas on December 25 has anything to do with politics. Instead, it is merely responding to “numerous requests and taking into account the discussion that has been going on for many years in the church and in society.”
The OCU response to the new Christmas option, says Archbishop Yevstratiy, is par for the course. “They have always treated us as a political group. They don’t accept us as a religious organization or as a church,” he said.
“It is very similar to how Russia treats Ukraine in general,” he continued. “From our side, we have often offered to start a dialogue without any preconditions, but they generally don’t respond — and when they do, they insist we acknowledge that we are not a church, have no canonical rights and that our clergy are not clergy.”
More than 1,600 parishes have defected from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church since it was recognized by the Patriarchate of Constantinople — about 1,000 of them since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The Gregorian calendar was introduced by Pope Gregory in 1582; the Julian calendar, established by Julius Caesar, harks back to 46 B.C.