Claiming Christmas is Ukrainians’ latest salvo at Russia

MAKARIV, Ukraine — Russia took nearly everything from Tetyana Kuvtun. So she’s retaliated in the only small way she could: She claimed Christmas for Ukraine.

By celebrating on Dec. 25 instead of Jan. 7 — the date Christmas is observed by Russians and other Eastern Orthodox Christians — Kuvtun is making a small stand against a larger Russian cultural hegemony that many Ukrainians see as part of Russia’s invasion.

“The civilized world celebrates on the 25th of December. So we would like to do that then as well,” she said, sitting in the tiny modular house she now shares with her family after Russian artillery destroyed their home months ago. “And yes, just to break with Russia, finally. It caused us so much pain.”

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

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

“I think for many people it will be a chance to demonstrate their will to be a part of European civilization. That we are Europeans. We choose this civilization,” said Archbishop Yevstratiy Zorya, the spokesperson for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of 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 usual Jan. 7 services.

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

The original monastery was built in 1108 and stood until 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 the spiritual restoration of Ukraine,” he said. “A symbol of the unbreakable spirit of Ukrainian Christianity.”

For the first time it offered an official Christmas mass on December 25 in addition to its usual January 7 service
Kyiv’s St. Michael’s for the first time this year offered an official Christmas service on Dec. 25 in addition to its usual Jan. 7 services. For Abbas / NBC News

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

Kyiv said its forces would not observe the cease-fire and has long viewed suggestions of a truce as efforts to buy Moscow time.

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

Kirill enjoys a close association with Putin and has provided a kind of spiritual cover for the invasion of Ukraine, going so far as saying that dying at war “washes away all sins”

‘Tribute to tradition’

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

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

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

While Zorya’s breakaway Orthodox Church of Ukraine, which was formally recognized as independent in 2019 after years of tension with Russia, gave its parishioners the option to celebrate Christmas on Dec. 25 for the first time last year, the more established Ukrainian Orthodox Church has retained some links with Moscow. And even as it has sought to distance itself from Russia, the UOC has also stuck with Christmas on Jan. 7.

“It’s being suggested to change the calendar according to political slogans,” said Serhiy Yushchyk, pro-rector of the Kyiv Theological Academy. “We support all the patriotic moves, but at the same time reserve our right to have our own worldview on the issues of celebrating, calendar and so on.”

Even if their Christmas remains in January, Yushchyk is eager to cite the ways in which his church has embraced Ukrainian identity and resisted Moscow. His church yard features a small monument to parishioners who have died defending Ukraine on the front lines.

Yushchyk himself helped negotiate prisoner exchanges between Russia and Ukraine several months ago during the Russians’ siege of the Azovstal Iron and Steel Works in Mariupol.

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

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

But despite those efforts, Yushchyk’s church has fallen under suspicion from Ukrainian authorities. Police raided several UOC parishes in November, suspecting them of taking orders from Moscow. And early last month, Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelenskyy proposed a law banning churches affiliated with Moscow.

Some Ukrainians refer to UOC priests — many of whom attended seminary in Moscow and St. Petersburg — as “spies in robes.” Such contempt isn’t entirely misplaced: Ukrainian courts have convicted UOC priests of providing Russia’s military with the locations of Ukrainian military maneuvers.

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

Theologically, though, the two churches are nearly identical, so their division rests 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 breakaway OCU in 2018, the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church almost immediately broke ties with the Constantinople Patriarchate, triggering a schism.

Zorya, the OCU spokesperson, said the Russian Orthodox Church, to which the UOC still bears at least a nominal connection, remains hopelessly imperial in its outlook. As an example, he cited the 2004 canonization of Adm. Theodore Ushakov, an 18th-century Russian Empire naval admiral who fought successfully against the French and Ottoman empires.

The decision to canonize an imperial military leader exposed Moscow’s 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 usual January 7 service for the first time.
A worshiper lights a candle at St. Michael’s on Dec. 25. For Abbas / NBC News

“The Moscow Patriarch 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 outside Kyiv, such lofty theological and political questions are secondary to more immediate concerns.

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

“We see our guys on the front line fighting, so we will probably go to the church then have some family dinner and that’s it. We’re not planning some big parties,” she said. “This year, Christmas looks quite sad for us.”

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

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