Ukraine picks new Christmas date in break with Russian tradition

For the first time in a century, Ukraine will celebrate the holiday on December 25 rather than January 7.

People attend the inauguration ceremony of the Christmas tree on Sophia Square in Kyiv, on December 6, 2023
Ukrainians attend a Christmas tree inauguration ceremony in Sophia Square in Kyiv, December 6 [Anatolii Stepanov/AFP]

Ukraine will formally mark Christmas Day on December 25 this year, in a symbolic shift away from Russia, which celebrates the holiday on January 7.

It will be the first time in more than a century that Ukraine observes the date in line with the Gregorian calendar, along with most of the world’s Christians.

Ukraine’s government passed legislation in July making the date change, in what was viewed as a snub to Russia and the Russian Orthodox Church, which follows the Roman-era Julian calendar for religious occasions.

The law signed by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy noted that Ukrainians wanted to “live their own life with their own traditions and holidays”.

It allows them to “abandon the Russian heritage of imposing Christmas celebrations on January 7”, it added.

Christianity is the largest religion in Ukraine, with the Russian Orthodox Church historically dominating religious life.

Battle over heritage

Ukraine’s date change is part of a series of moves since Russia’s invasion to dispel any traces of the Russian and Soviet empires, such as renaming streets and removing monuments.

This photograph taken on December 6, 2023 shows a Christmas tree next to the grave of a Ukrainian soldier at Lychakiv cemetery, on the Day of the Armed Forces of Ukraine in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine. (Photo by YURIY DYACHYSHYN / AFP)
A Christmas tree stands next to the grave of a Ukrainian soldier at Lychakiv cemetery, in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv [Yuriy Dyachyshyn/AFP]

The Orthodox Church of Ukraine, a newly created independent church that held its first service in 2019, has also changed its Christmas date to December 25.

It formally broke away from the Russian Orthodox Church over Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and its support for separatists in eastern Ukraine.

The political rift has seen priests and even entire parishes swap from one church to another, with the new Orthodox Church of Ukraine growing fast and taking over several Russia-linked church buildings in moves supported by the government.

The historically Russia-linked Ukrainian Orthodox Church, meanwhile, is keeping the January 7 Christmas date. This church claims to have cut ties with Russia because of the war but many Ukrainians view this with scepticism.

The country’s third Orthodox denomination, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, will also hold Christmas services on December 25.

Ukraine had been under Moscow’s spiritual leadership since the 17th century at the latest.

Under the Soviet Union and its profession of atheism, Christmas traditions such as trees and gifts were shifted to New Year’s Eve, which became the main holiday and still is for many families.

Ukrainian Christmas traditions include a dinner on Christmas Eve with 12 meatless dishes, including a sweet grain pudding called kutya, and people decorate homes with elaborate sheaves of wheat called didukhy.

In some areas, children go from house to house singing carols called kolyadky and performing nativity scenes.

Children sing carols during a Christmas Eve performance in Lviv, Ukraine January 6, 2007. Orthodox and Greek Catholic Ukrainians will celebrate Christmas on January 7. REUTERS/Gleb Garanich (UKRAINE)
Children sing carols during a Christmas Eve performance in Lviv, Ukraine [Gleb Garanich/Reuters]
Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies