Claiming Christmas is the last salvo of the Ukrainians against Russia

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MAKARIV, Ukraine — Russia took almost everything from Tetyana Kuvtun. So she retaliated in the only small way she could: she reclaimed Christmas for the Ukraine.

Celebrating December 25 instead of January 7 — the date Russians and other Eastern Orthodox Christians observe Christmas — Kuvtun is putting up little opposition to a larger Russian cultural hegemony that many Ukrainians see as part of Russia’s invasion.

“The civilized world celebrates December 25. So we would like to do that too,” she said, sitting in the small modular home she now shares with her family after Russian artillery destroyed her home months ago. “And yes, only to break with Russia, finally. It caused us a lot of pain.»

Tetyana Kuvtun and her son David in their new house in Makariv. Mo Abbas/NBC News

Kuvtun is among the Ukrainian Christians who turned Christmas into a new front in the war with Russia. The date change signals a broader cultural shift, as many Ukrainians seek a more Western European identity amid the war ruins of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“I think that for many people it will be an opportunity to show their willingness to be part of European civilization. That we are European We chose this civilization,” said Archbishop Yevstratiy Zorya, spokesman for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate.

Zorya spoke inside Kyiv’s St. Michael’s Monastery, which for the first time last year offered an official Christmas mass on Dec. 25 in addition to its regular Jan. 7 service.

The gleaming gold-domed building bears traces of Ukraine’s centuries-old tensions with Russia.

The original monastery was built in 1108 and stood until the Bolsheviks, acting under the Soviet Union’s official policy of state atheism, destroyed it in 1937, Zorya said. The Ukrainian government rebuilt a replica in 2000, as a «symbol of Ukraine’s spiritual restoration,» she said. «A symbol of the unbreakable spirit of Ukrainian Christianity.»

For the first time he offered an official Christmas mass on December 25 in addition to his usual service on January 7
St. Michael’s of Kyiv, for the first time this year, offered an official Christmas service on December 25, in addition to its regular service on January 7. Mo Abbas/NBC News

Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, waded into controversy on Thursday when he suggested a Christmas truce, with the holiday notably celebrated on Saturday. Hours later, Putin ordered his army to observe a 36-hour ceasefire in Ukraine for the Russian Orthodox Christmas and asked Kyiv to do the same.

Kyiv said its forces would not observe the ceasefire and has long viewed suggestions of a truce as an effort to buy time in Moscow.

On social media, many Ukrainians noted that Putin was happy to bombard Ukrainian civilians with drones and missiles on December 24 and 25, when Kuvtun and many others chose to celebrate their Christmas.

Kirill enjoys a close association with Putin and has provided something of a spiritual cover for the invasion of Ukraine, even going so far as to say that dying in war «washes away all sins.»

‘Homage to tradition’

Not everyone in Ukraine is changing the date they celebrate Christmas. Andriy Avramenko, a 27-year-old from Kyiv, said January 7 still feels more like Christmas.

“Most people will still celebrate Christmas in January and this change will be very gradual,” he said. «Celebrating December 25 is a conscious decision, a kind of public political statement, while celebrating January 7 is a tribute to tradition.»

Ukraine’s “war on Christmas” is really a small battle in a larger schism between two churches with almost identical names and theologies.

While the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which split from Zorya and was formally recognized as independent in 2019 after years of tension with Russia, gave its parishioners the option of celebrating Christmas on December 25 for the first time this year, In the past, the more established Ukrainian Orthodox Church has retained some links with Moscow. And although it has sought to distance itself from Russia, the UOC has also kept Christmas on January 7.

«It is suggested to change the calendar in accordance with political slogans,» said Serhiy Yushchyk, pro-rector of the Kyiv Theological Academy. “We support all patriotic movements, but at the same time we reserve the right to have our own worldview in terms of celebration, calendar, etc.”

Even if his Christmas is still January, Yushchyk is eager to cite the ways his church has embraced Ukrainian identity and resisted Moscow. His churchyard has a small memorial to parishioners who have died defending Ukraine at the front.

Yushchyk himself helped negotiate prisoner exchanges between Russia and Ukraine several months ago during the Russian siege of the Azovstal iron and steel works in Mariupol.

And just last year, the Yushchyk UOC officially stopped mentioning Patriarch Kirill during services.

Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill conducts a service at the Cathedral of Saint Nicholas of Myra in Moscow, Russia
Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill has said that dying in war «washes away all sins.» Svetlana Shevchenko / Sputnik via AP file

But despite those efforts, Yushchyk’s church has fallen under suspicion by the Ukrainian authorities. Police raided several UOC parishes in November, on suspicion that they were receiving orders from Moscow. And early last month, Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelenskyy proposed a law banning Moscow-affiliated churches.

Some Ukrainians refer to the UOC priests, many of whom attended seminars in Moscow and St. Petersburg, as «spies in robes.» Such contempt is not entirely out of place: Ukrainian courts have convicted UOC priests for providing the Russian military with the locations of Ukrainian military exercises.

Yushchyk acknowledged that some of the clerics within his church’s ranks have betrayed Ukraine and said his church is working to eliminate traitors.

Theologically, however, the two churches are almost identical, so their division is based almost entirely on questions of identity.

When the synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, considered the supreme global authority for Orthodox Christians, announced that it would begin the process of granting autocephaly, or independence, to the dissident OCU in 2018, the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church almost immediately broke up. ties with the Patriarchate of Constantinople, causing a schism.

Zorya, the OCU spokesman, said that the Russian Orthodox Church, with which the UOC still has at least nominal connection, remains hopelessly imperial in outlook. As an example, he cited the 2004 canonization of Admiral Theodore Ushakov, an 18th-century Russian Empire naval admiral who successfully fought the French and Ottoman Empires.

The decision to canonize an imperial military leader exposed the Moscow church as little more than an extension of state power and patriotism, he said.

The monastery offered an official Christmas mass on December 25 in addition to its regular service on January 7 for the first time.
A worshiper lights a candle at St. Michael’s on December 25. Mo Abbas/NBC News

“The Patriarch of Moscow is a product of imperial and Soviet existence,” Zorya said. «As a system, the Russian Orthodox Church, including the church in Ukraine, is a system for spreading neo-imperial ideas.»

But for the Kuvtuns, huddled in their diminished home on the outskirts of Kyiv, such lofty theological and political issues are secondary to more immediate concerns.

Tetyana and her husband dream of rebuilding the house where their family celebrated Christmas last January 7th.

“We see our guys fighting on the front lines, so we’ll probably go to church and then have family dinner and that’s it. We are not planning big parties,” she said. «This year, Christmas seems pretty sad to us.»

Regardless of the date they choose, Christmas for the Kuvtuns may never feel the same.

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