Christmas Comes Early in Ukraine, but Not a Moment Too Soon

Christmas lights flickered on ahead of schedule. Families sang carols a little sooner. And the first presents of the season — by tradition hidden under a pillow or in a boot — appeared two weeks early.

Of Ukraine’s many Western-oriented changes, put in place bit by bit since independence and accelerated during the war, one brought special joy this year: Christmas came early.

After centuries of marking the holiday on Jan. 7 under the Julian church calendar, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church this year formally switched to celebrating on Dec. 25 with most of the rest of Europe — and pointedly not with Russia.

For 6-year-old Drynka, that meant practicing carols early and enjoying the excitement of receiving gifts like a Rainbow High doll and a paint set two weeks earlier she did than last year.

“I love Christmas!” she said.

Her mother, Halyna Shvets, saw a step toward Europe in the Ukrainian church’s decision to shift the date away from Russia’s tradition, not only for Christmas celebrations but for other religious holidays as well.

“We are really happy,” she said. “Faith in God is a fundamental pillar of our lives. Celebrating Christmas, the birth of Jesus Christ, is an opportunity for us to gather for this beautiful Ukrainian religious tradition.”

Christmas, like so much else in Ukraine these days, is tightly tangled up in the country’s war with Russia. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church has taken the position that the Julian calendar used in the Russian church does not have religious significance, and that holidays should be celebrated according to the calendar by which people live their daily lives. Even before this year’s formal switch, some Ukrainian Orthodox believers, in the first year after Russia’s invasion, had moved Christmas to December.

Technically, the change in the celebration is a recommendation; individual parishes are deciding when to mark the holiday. But of the roughly 7,500 parishes in the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, all but 120 shifted the date of Christmas this year, as Russia’s invasion approaches its second full year.

Most eastern Orthodox churches had already taken this position. After the Ukrainian church’s switch, only four of 15 eastern Orthodox denominations — in Russia, Serbia, Finland and Jerusalem — still follow the Julian calendar, which lags by 13 days owing to a difference in calculating the length of the year. Some religious communities in Greece, Bulgaria and Romania, known as Old Feasters, have also continued to follow the old calendar.

In his Christmas address, President Volodymyr Zelensky noted the second Christmas at war, and the shift in the date so that Orthodox and Catholic Ukrainians will celebrate on the same day. “Today, all Ukrainians are together,” he said. “We all meet Christmas together. On the same date, as one big family, as one nation, as one united country.”

Mr. Zelensky said many Ukrainians would celebrate with empty places at the table for soldiers at the front. All, though, would pray for peace together “without a time difference of two weeks.”

After Ukraine gained independence in 1991, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church split from the Russian Orthodox Church though much of the liturgy and traditions remained similar. In 2018, that split became formal, although one branch of the church remained aligned with Russia.

After the invasion, that branch removed from church documents formal mention of loyalty to the Russian church, but continues to celebrate Christmas in January.

Church leaders and believers say celebrating holidays apart from Russians is a happy change.

“We see that the Moscow Patriarchate creates myths about the Tsar and the Russian world, and people believe them,” said Father Mykhailo Omelian, a spokesman for the Ukrainian church. Celebrating apart from the Russians will help differentiate the Ukrainian branch of orthodoxy, he said.

“This process started in the economic, political, social, and cultural spheres and now comes to the spiritual aspect,” he said. “The religious sphere cannot belong to an aggressor country.”

Most Ukrainians will embrace the switch, Liudmyla Fylypovych, a professor of religion at the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, said in an interview. Moving from January to December doesn’t alter the meaning of Christmas, she said, adding. “We celebrate not the date but the event” of Jesus’ birth.

Most of the change has gone smoothly, families and church leaders say. Presents, traditionally hidden in shoes or somewhere in a bedroom on St. Nicholas Day on Dec. 6, delighting millions of Ukrainian children.

The rhythm of caroling and performing Christmas plays leaped forward two weeks. On Christmas Eve, children pad around villages or up and down the stairwells of apartment blocks, singing carols and receiving small gifts from those who listened, a tradition carried out now on Dec. 24 instead of Jan. 6.

In another Ukrainian tradition, on Christmas Day, children perform skits of the Nativity story on central streets of their town. Practice began earlier this year.

Cities shifted schedules for hundreds of holiday events. In the western city of Lviv, for example, more than 200 Christmas and New Year’s activities, including the street theater skits on Christmas Day, were organized under the new calendar.

For those who observe it, a preholiday religious fast of refraining from meat also came early this year.

Along the war’s frontline, about 700 Ukrainian Orthodox Church priests who serve as chaplains visited trenches and bunkers to bless troops, Father Mykhailo, the church spokesman, said. They will not hold Christmas mass in areas close to the front, as any congregation of soldiers creates a target for Russian artillery or missiles.

Metropolitan Epiphanius, the leader of the Ukrainian church, will perform mass on Monday in the St. Sophia cathedral in Kyiv. He posted his Christmas prayers online, ahead of the usual schedule.

“Amid the sorrow and suffering of war, amid the pain of losses, we still celebrate,” he planned to say during the liturgy on Monday, “because Christmas for us is not just or not so much a time of entertainment and gifts as a testimony to the victory of truth and goodness and the inevitable defeat of evil.”

His address wrapped up with the usual celebratory words: “Christ is born!”

There were some glitches in the date change. With less school vacation time before Christmas, preparing the holiday meal and its centerpiece — a dish of boiled wheat kernels with nuts and dried fruits — is more hectic, Ms. Shvets said. But that is a minor inconvenience, she added.

“We have been waiting for this for many years,” Ms. Shvets said.

“We are very happy and grateful,” she said. “It’s wonderful for us that we celebrate with the rest of the world.”

Oleksandra Mykolyshyn contributed reporting.