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Ukrainians defy Moscow with first December Christmas

Many Ukrainians will tomorrow celebrate Christmas Day on 25 December for the first time, after the government changed the date from the Orthodox Church observance of 7 January in a snub to Russia.

Ukraine passed a law in July moving the celebration to 25 December, the day when most of the Christian world marks Christmas.

The law signed by President Volodymyr Zelensky 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 dominating religious life until recently.

Like the Russian Church, most eastern Christian churches use the Julian calendar, dating back to Roman times, rather than the Gregorian calendar used in everyday life.

The date change is part of hastened moves since the invasion to remove traces of the Russian and Soviet empires, such as renaming streets and removing monuments.

Children wearing traditional clothes as they take part in Christmas eve celebration in Lviv,

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

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 7 January 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 25 December.

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.

Ukrainian servicemen hold didukh – bunches of wheat to symbolise sacrifice – and taste traditional doughnuts during Christmas Eve celebration in Lviv

Ukraine’s new Christmas Day unites Catholic-Orthodox family

Ukrainian couple Lesia Shestakova, a Catholic, and Oleksandr Shestakov, an Orthodox believer, will for the first time celebrate Christmas together tomorrow.

Lesia, Oleksandr and two of their children used to celebrate Christmas twice: first with Lesia’s parents in December and then with Oleksandr’s parents in January.

“There is finally a day in Ukraine which my husband and I can spend together in the cathedral and thank God that we are together, alive and in good health,” Lesia told Reuters as the pair attended the morning service at the Catholic Cathedral of St Alexander in Kyiv.

Lesia and Oleksandr agreed that distancing the country from Russian religious and cultural traditions will help strengthen Ukraine even more.

“Everything Soviet-related – hammer and sickle, stars, idols and monuments to those like (former Soviet leader) Lenin – are being destroyed. And now, on December 25, the country’s rebirth will start, with new holidays,” Oleksandr said.

Moscow’s February 2022 attack prompted many Ukrainians to reject Russian language and culture and other historical ties to Kyiv’s former ruler.

Lesia has already practised cooking the food that will be at the centre of the table on Christmas morning, including her grandmother’s traditional recipes.

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