Opinion | Some Ukrainians are choosing an unusual date for Christmas: Dec. 25

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Ukrainians are about to celebrate Christmas for the first time since the Russian invasion began on Feb. 24. But which Christmas, exactly?

Earlier this year, the Orthodox Church in Ukraine (OCU), which represents tens of millions of worshipers, announced that member churches would be free to celebrate Christmas on Dec. 25, the same as Western Catholics and Protestants.

That would place many of Ukraine’s Orthodox faithful at odds with the practice of other members of Eastern Orthodoxy who celebrate Christmas on Jan. 7 (according to the old Julian calendar). But that is precisely the point.

“Many Ukrainians are now moving towards celebrating Christmas on Dec. 25. And that’s only natural, because it’s part of our European choice,” Serhiy Prytula, a Ukrainian philanthropist and TV personality, told me. “We were always part of Europe before Soviet rule, so it’s obvious and logical that people in Ukraine are ready and willing to celebrate Christmas together with the European family of nations to which we historically belong.” A recent poll shows that the number of Ukrainians willing to adopt the Western date has risen from 26 percent to 44 percent over the past year.

For Prytula and others, Jan. 7 symbolizes a version of Orthodoxy they would rather leave behind — the kind represented by the Russian Orthodox Church, the pet denomination of Vladimir Putin, that self-appointed scourge of Ukrainian national identity.

Over the years, Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Moscow-based church, has developed a symbiotic relationship with the Russian president. Putin showers the church with money and favors and holds it up as the ideological core of the “Russian world,” his vision of an imperial culture uniting Russian-speakers across national borders. In return, Kirill gives Putin a valuable sheen of legitimacy — never more visibly than during the current war. The minions of the Moscow Patriarchy have justified the invasion by describing Ukraine as the “Antichrist,” the embodiment of demonic opposition to Putin’s rule. Meanwhile, members of the Russian officer corps have taken to calling the invasion a “holy war.”

Ukraine’s Orthodox churches, which together claim the allegiance of some 80 percent of the country’s 43 million people, are no longer willing to let Kirill call the shots. The OCU, which issued the finding on Christmas, has long steered an independent course. But the rival Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which accounts for the largest share of the country’s Orthodox believers, has gone from acknowledging Moscow’s supremacy just a few years ago to breaking off all ties in May. (That hasn’t spared it from coming under scrutiny from Kyiv’s security services, which worry that the church might be acting as a fifth column.)

And yes — religious politics in Ukraine can be mind-bendingly complex. Alfons Bruening, a scholar of Eastern European Christianity at Radboud University in the Netherlands, says that the country’s religious diversity means that East-West distinctions are sometimes blurred. “Quite a few in Ukraine celebrate Christmas twice,” he writes in an email. “It is a matter of pragmatism quite typical for Ukraine, as a multi-religious country.”

Yet it is striking that Russian propagandists choose to depict this diversity as a vice, mocking Kyiv’s army as a collection of “fighters against Orthodoxy” whose leaders include (horrors!) “Protestants, Uniates [Greek Catholics] and atheists.” The same writer denounced Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s offer of a truce around Dec. 25 “because the leadership of the Russian army is Orthodox and for them Christmas is Jan. 7.”

Ukrainians respond with a shrug of contempt. “My family made the shift [to Western Christmas] 10 years ago,” says political consultant Yevhen Hlibovytsky. “And many other friends have since. This is the year when many, many others will follow.”

The embrace of Dec. 25 mirrors a larger cultural, political and economic reorientation. In 2013, tens of thousands of Ukrainians took to the streets to protest then-President Viktor Yanukovych’s decision to scrap an economic cooperation agreement with the European Union. Yanukovych’s subsequent downfall prompted Putin to seize Crimea and send Russian troops into eastern Ukraine in 2014.

Since then, however, the Kremlin’s aggressiveness has only accelerated Ukrainians’ determination to reject everything it stands for. Close economic and political ties with Europe are now taken for granted. Once ardently pro-Russian politicians have morphed into Ukrainian patriots. And Ukraine’s once-tentative military cooperation with the West has reached a scale unimaginable just 12 months ago.

The war has also driven nearly 8 million Ukrainians to seek refuge in places across the European Union and beyond, which is likely to further cement pro-Western sentiment.

So pay attention as Ukrainians gear up for the holidays amid the cold, the darkness, the death and the suffering imposed on them by Putin’s regime. This year, Christmas won’t be a routine holiday. It will give Ukrainians one more opportunity to make an emphatic statement about who they are — and their determination to survive as a nation.

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