Ukrainian Orthodox Christians attended services on Sunday as the country celebrated Christmas on December 25 for the first time, after the government changed the date to January 7, a date most Orthodox believers celebrate as a snub for Russia.
“All Ukrainians are together,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in his Christmas message Sunday evening. “We all celebrate Christmas together. On the same date, as one big family, as one nation, as one country.”
In the southern Black Sea port of Odessa, churchgoers prayed and lit candles, dressed in golden robes and held a Christmas Eve service at the Nativity Cathedral, decorated with fir trees and a Nativity scene.
“We hope to celebrate Christmas with the whole world, far away, far from Moscow. For me, that's the new message now,” said a smiling parishioner Olena, whose son is a front-line doctor.
“We really want to celebrate in a new way. It's a holiday with all of Ukraine and our independent Ukraine. It's very important for us,” he told AFP.
Most Eastern Christian churches use the Julian calendar, in which Christmas falls on January 7, rather than the Gregorian calendar used in everyday life and in Western churches.
Separately, Ukraine's air force said on Monday it shot down 28 Russian drones out of 31 Russian drones launched from the annexed Crimean peninsula, and also shot down two Russian missiles and two fighter jets.
Zelenskyy signed a law in July moving the celebration to December 25, saying it would help Ukrainians “abandon the Russian tradition of imposing Christmas celebrations on January 7.”
The date change is part of a series of rapid moves since thenTo eliminate traces of the Russian and Soviet empires. Other measures include renaming streets and removing monuments.
Ukraine's Orthodox Church formally split from the Russian Orthodox Church over Moscow's annexation of Crimea in 2014 and support for separatists in eastern Ukraine.
Political rifts saw priests and even entire parishes move from one church to another, while the New Orthodox Church of Ukraine grew rapidly and government-sponsored many church buildings linked to Russia.
On Sunday evening, worshipers packed St. Michael's Golden-Domed Monastery in Kiev, headquarters of the newly independent church — for a Christmas service led by Metropolitan Epiphany, head of Ukraine's Orthodox Church.
Ukrainians across the country voiced their support for the Christmas date change.
“We want to support what is happening now in Ukraine. Changes are always difficult, and when these changes happen, more people need to support it for something new to happen,” said Denys, a young man who attends a church in Odessa. .
At Kiev's Golden-Domed Monastery, Oksana Krikunova said that after the invasion, “it was natural to switch to the 25th.”
He added: “I met my parents — my 81-year-old mother and 86-year-old father — and they were absolutely (generally) accepting of it.”
“We have to join the civilized world,” said Taras Kobsa, an army doctor in the western city of Lviv, little damaged by the war.
Tetiana, a singer in the classical music group Yakodi (Berry), admitted, “I'm so happy that we're finally celebrating Christmas Eve and Christmas together all over the world. It's really cool.”
The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church has also decided to hold Christmas services on December 25.
But the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, historically linked to Russia, keeps the January 7 Christmas date. The church says it cut ties with Russia because of the war, but many Ukrainians are skeptical.
Under the Soviet Union, atheism was encouraged and Christmas traditions such as trees and presents were moved to New Year's Eve, which became the main holiday.
Ukrainian Christmas traditions include 12 meatless dishes, including dinner on Christmas Eve, a sweet cereal pudding called kutya.
People decorate their houses with layers of wheat called diduk. Celebrations include singing carols called koliatki, carrying decorations in the shape of stars, and performing nativity scenes.