Bringing Christmas back: how Ukraine returned the celebration date of December 25

Bringing Christmas back: how Ukraine returned the celebration date of December 25

In July 2023, Ukraine officially changed the date of Christmas. Why is this happening all of a sudden? What happened before that, and why is it necessary to change the date during the war? 

In this article, we explain why Ukrainians now celebrate Christmas on December 25, how it used to be and what role Russia plays in it.

How did the discrepancy in Christmas dates appear?

In July 2023, President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy signed a law changing the date of Christmas. The holiday is now celebrated only on December 25, not January 7, as it used to be. 

In 2017, the Verkhovna Rada adopted a law on two dates for Christmas - December 25 became the official day, and January 7 remained the official date. In the explanatory note, the initiators justified this by saying that "about 11,000 religious Catholic and Protestant communities in Ukraine" are unable to celebrate Christmas according to their church calendar because of the law, i.e., on December 25. 

But why was it impossible to celebrate Christmas on December 25 from the beginning, and where did the January 7 date come from? 

The answer is the Gregorian and Julian calendars. 

The Gregorian calendar, used worldwide today, was introduced by Pope Gregory XIII in the 16th century. He was fond of astronomy, so he calculated that the vernal equinox, according to the Julian calendar (introduced by Julius Caesar — ed.), was ten days behind the astronomical one (the Romans made a mistake in calculating how the Earth revolved around the Sun, and therefore the calendar shifted; Christmas was celebrated almost in spring — ed.). It also affected the start of agricultural work. 

That's why the Catholic Church changed the calendar to the Gregorian calendar, named after Pope Gregory XIII. Therefore, in 1583, October 4 was followed by October 15 — this is how the inaccuracies were corrected. 

The Protestant and Anglican churches switched to the new calendar, but the Russian Empire, which included Ukrainian lands then, opposed it and continued to live by the Julian calendar. 

However, there were times in Ukraine when it switched to the Gregorian calendar to be closer to Europe. For example, in 1917, a young state, the Ukrainian People's Republic, was formed on the territory of Ukraine. It switched the country to the Gregorian calendar. 

At the same time, Soviet Russia also switched to the Gregorian calendar (the Russian Empire ceased to exist in 1917 — ed.) The Bolsheviks (members of the left-wing radical wing of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, who staged mass terrorist attacks for political power — ed.) did this to change the imperial system in the country. 

​​However, the Orthodox Church did not plan to change the calendar even after the Council of Constantinople in 1923 (a meeting of representatives of the local Eastern Orthodox Churches in Constantinople from May 10 to June 8, 1923 — ed.), which recommended the transition to the Gregorian calendar. It was explained by the fact that the church resisted the Bolshevik government's reforms, which opposed the institution.

So, although Ukraine lived on the Gregorian calendar, the church followed the Julian calendar. This is how it has remained to this day. The days coincide (Ukraine celebrates the New Year at the same time as the rest of the world), but holidays such as Christmas do not.  Over time, the discrepancy has increased from 10 days to 13, so when the Julian calendar falls on December 25, the Gregorian calendar falls on January 7. 

Why do we need to change it now, and how is it connected to the decolonisation process?

The Soviet government tried to destroy religion. However, the modern Russian leadership, on the contrary, uses it to influence. For example, the 16th Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia, Kirill, supports Russia's aggression against Ukraine, extending it to the territory of Ukraine through the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate. This church has more than 12,000 parishes in Ukraine and over two million believers

The Orthodox Church of Ukraine emerged only in 2018, and in early 2019, the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople granted it autocephalous status. The new church was supposed to revive the traditions of the Kyiv Orthodox Metropolis and disconnect Ukraine from the influence of the Russian Orthodox Church.  

Petro Poroshenko, President of Ukraine from 2014-2019 and Member of Parliament since 2019, stressed that the creation of an autocephalous Orthodox Church is "the decolonisation and de-occupation of Ukraine", and "Russian aggression has left no room to look at it differently". 

The new church is a way of preventing further (after the occupation of Crimea (Qırım) and the beginning of the aggression in eastern Ukraine in 2014 — ed.) the complete seizure of Ukraine by Russia and the destruction of Ukrainian identity, 

Yevhen Hlibovytskyi, a member of the Supervisory Board of the National Public Broadcasting Company of Ukraine, explains the reason for the creation of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine.   

In the first year of its existence, the Orthodox Church of Ukraine used the Julian calendar, meaning that Christmas was celebrated on January 7, not December 25, as in Russia. Metropolitan Epiphanius of Kyiv and All Ukraine stated that "the church can move the celebration of Christmas from January 7 to December 25 if the faithful agree". Opinions were divided here: while western Ukraine, which borders Poland, perceived December 25 as an unofficial Christmas, the centre and east of Ukraine were used to January 7.   

The Orthodox Church of Ukraine allowed worship on December 25 only in 2022, after Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine. This decision preceded the final calendar change. 

Religious scholar Liudmyla Filipovych told RFI that the change in the church calendar and the establishment of the Christmas date of December 25 at the state level is

"a form of independence. It means we are moving further away from Moscow and closer to Europe." 

The Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, which still operates in Ukraine, maintains the Julian calendar and has no plans to change it. It considers it "traditional" and the celebration of Christmas on January 7 as "not being close to the Russian Orthodox Church". Therefore, the changes had to be implemented at the legislative level - making December 25 an official holiday and equating January 7 to an ordinary day. 

Father Vasyl Rudeiko, a doctor of theology and associate professor of liturgical studies at the Ukrainian Catholic University, says that

"the Moscow church used the calendar issue to create tension and conflict in Ukraine, to politicise this issue," and "the Julian calendar is a purely astronomical error that does not affect church dogmas."

Ukraine's cultural heritage 

According to the Rating sociological group, in 2022, 44% of respondents supported the shift of Christmas from January 7 to December 25 (in 2021, 26%). 

In May 2023, the Orthodox Church of Ukraine decided to switch to the New Julian calendar from September 1, 2023, an updated Julian calendar that has no discrepancies with the Gregorian calendar. 

The Synod of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church explains the decision by saying that "in modern conditions, the social and cultural context of the Julian calendar and its perception have changed significantly" — now the Julian calendar is associated with the Russian Orthodox Church. 

Ukrainian historian Volodymyr Panchenko concludes in his commentary to Svidomi that establishing the December 25th date for Christmas is a return to the civilised world and the historical vision of the holidays as they were in Ukraine before Soviet rule.

By returning to the historical celebration of Christmas, we completely get rid of the imperial and Soviet heritage because we should not be guided by what the Russians have been imposing on us for centuries to be different from Europe,

says Volodymyr Panchenko.