Church bells and chanting rang throughout Ukraine’s capital as Orthodox Christians attended Christmas services on Sunday, a defiant break from Russian religious leaders who will mark the holiday in two weeks.
The decision by some Ukrainian churches to observe Christmas on December 25 and not January 7, as is customary in Orthodox Christianity, highlights the rift between church officials in Kyiv and Moscow that has deepened with the ongoing war.
Worshipper Olga Stanko told AFP on Sunday she supported any move that would distance Ukraine from Russia — and said she believed shifting the Christmas date was overdue.
“The war has brought us so much grief,” the 72-year-old said, tearing up as she mentioned her son fighting near Bakhmut, the hottest point on the front line in eastern Ukraine.
“We forgot that they were our enemies, we were so gullible. And now a war has come to us, a calamity.”
An Interfax-Ukraine poll showed that, like her, nearly half of Ukrainians are in favour of moving the holy day, up from 26 percent in 2021 — though 31 percent were still against it.
Ukraine had been under Moscow’s spiritual leadership since at least the 17th century, but part of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church broke with Moscow in 2019 over Russia’s annexation of Crimea and support for separatists in the east.
In May of this year, three months into the invasion, the Russia-backed branch of Ukraine’s Orthodox Church also said it had severed ties with Moscow.
– ‘Great light’ in darkness –
Packed into a church near St Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery in central Kyiv, wearing coats to guard against the winter chill, worshippers lit candles and lined up to give confession on Sunday morning as an all-male choir led the chanting.
In his sermon, Archpriest Mykhailo Omelyan appeared to allude to widespread power and heating cuts caused by Russian attacks that have affected millions in and beyond the city.
“The people who sat in darkness saw a great light, and to those who are in the land and shadow of death, the light has shone on them,” he said, adding a harsh word for the Russians.
“Not everyone accepts the light that has shone… There are those people who loved the darkness more than the light, because their deeds were evil.”
Other reminders of the war included burnt-out Russian tanks on display in the square outside the church, and an air raid siren that sounded about 25 minutes into the service.
On social media, some users added a militant twist to traditional Christmas imagery, for example by replacing the Three Wise Men — who are said to have visited Jesus after his birth — with armed soldiers.
Olena Zakharova-Gorianska said she was happy to be celebrating Christmas on December 25 for the first time — describing it as an obvious choice after surviving Russian occupation in the town of Gostomel, north of Kyiv.
“I do not want to have anything to do with the occupiers, with the enemy,” she said.
– ‘Transitional period’ –
Yet the same church will also hold a Christmas service on January 7 to accommodate those who aren’t ready to change, said Father Andriy.
“In my opinion, this is a transitional period… There are some things that we cannot change radically in one moment,” he said, predicting it would take several years before celebrations on December 25 fully catch on.
He added: “In fact, we must remember that we celebrate not the date, but the event — the birth of the Saviour. We do not know the exact date, so there is no need to emphasise it.”
Omelyan also acknowledged that strident calls to abandon the January 7 Christmas celebrations completely did not represent the will of all, or even most, of Ukraine’s Orthodox faithful.
An official breakdown was not available, but he said only a “minority” of churches were holding Christmas services on Sunday.
“We see that a really large part of society still wants to celebrate on January 7,” he told AFP.
“Yes, there are a lot of Facebook believers who are only 25 and categorical. But often people write, and rarely come to church.”