ZOiS Spotlight 36/2017

Are two Christmases better than one?

by Regina Elsner 20/12/2017
Christmas illumination in Kyiv, Ukraine. Leonid Andronow

This year, for the first time, 25 December will be a public holiday in Ukraine. The relevant legislation came into effect on 2 December and gives Ukrainians a day off work on 25 December – the West’s Christmas Day – in addition to the Orthodox Christmas, which is celebrated on 7 January in accordance with the Julian calendar.

Two Christmases in a multi-faith country? On the face of it, that seems fairly unremarkable: both days are already public holidays in Belarus and Moldova. Ukraine has a particularly diverse array of Christian churches – the product of its eventful history. But what divides these churches day to day is not the date of Christmas: in fact, more than 70% of Ukraine’s population celebrates Christmas on 7 January. Only the relatively small number of Roman Catholic communities and the not inconsiderable number of Protestant parishes observe 25 December. It seems unlikely that the decision to give the entire country a day off is a concession to them.

Two Christmases for “national unity”?

There are few other countries where religious affiliation is so bound up with national, ethnic or cultural identity within the populace and across the territory as Ukraine. The country’s search for identity and its quest for independence since the 1990s have sparked not only political but also ecclesiastical debates. In 1992, a schism occurred within the Ukrainian Orthodox Church between those who demanded a national Orthodox Church with its own patriarchate in Kyiv and those who continued to feel allegiance to the Moscow Patriarchate. Further on, for a long time, the conflict between the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church (UGCC) and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church appeared to be a key component of the phantom border between the Euro-centric west of the country and the Russian-centric east.

Some MPs are emphatic that the introduction of the new public holiday will unite Ukrainian society. Given the history of the Ukrainian churches, however, any talk of unity must be treated with caution. Since the demise of the Soviet Union, the unification of the various Ukrainian Orthodox churches to form a national church has been driven by political forces, often as an overtly political project with no regard for the negotiations taking place among the churches themselves. The open conflict with Russia since 2014 has given these ambitions a shot in the arm: due to its dependence on Moscow, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate was (and is) regarded as an open door for Russian propaganda, with the faithful deserting en masse. The reality is rather different. During and after the Euromaidan protests, relations among the Ukrainian churches were closer than almost ever before: all the churches clearly positioned themselves on the side of sovereign Ukraine and called for peaceful solutions to the conflict.

A question of identity?

The arguments made to justify the new public holiday clearly show that the new date of Christmas is rooted in political ambition. First off, in 2015, Oleksandr Turchynov, Secretary of the National Security and Defence Council, called on the country’s Christian churches to make a collective shift to Christmas according to the Gregorian calendar. “Perhaps it’s time for Ukraine to celebrate Christmas on 25 December, in common with almost the entire civilised world?” The matter was to be decided by the churches themselves. But now Parliament has made the decision without waiting for an ecclesiastical vote. Turchynov was one of the first to react, stating that the decision strengthened Ukraine’s integration in Europe and allowed the Ukrainian people “to distance themselves from Moscow's calendar and Russian imperial standards”. The Speaker of Parliament Andriy Parubiy justified the new public holiday in similar terms: “Let us build a European country, let us unite the Ukrainian nation (...) and let us liberate ourselves from Moscow’s mental occupation and return to the family of free peoples.”

The arguments set out in the explanatory notes to the legislation do not only refer to Western Christian traditions. Rather surprisingly, they also address a pastoral concern, namely that the New Year celebrations before the Orthodox Christmas make it difficult for the faithful to observe the Nativity Fast; celebrating Christmas Day in December therefore is supposed to be clearly in the interests of countless Orthodox believers.

Other draft laws relating to Ukrainian religious policy currently on the table are less subtle in their ambition to put distance between the Ukrainian churches and Moscow. Since the start of this year, there has been ongoing debate about two laws which would substantially curtail the rights of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate. Among other things, the laws target religious organisations whose administrative headquarters are located in a country defined by Parliament as an “aggressor state”. This is an obvious reference to the Moscow Patriarchate, even though in terms of all its organisational arrangements, the UOC is independent of Moscow.

What do the churches say?

The efforts to achieve an independent and unified Ukrainian Orthodox Church continue unabated, but the question of how this is to be done is as contentious as ever. In December, the Bishops’ Council of the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow amended its Statute. At the behest of the head of the UOC, it now reads: “The administrative centre of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church is located in Kyiv.” At the same time, Patriarch Filaret, the head of the Kyivan Patriarchate, caused a stir with a letter to Patriarch Kirill: his appeal for reconciliation was interpreted by Moscow as a plea for forgiveness. Filaret retorted that the UOC-KP would never go back to the Moscow Patriarchate “because we have our own state”.

Given all the disunity among the Orthodox churches, a new date for Christmas is seen as unhelpful. A spokesman for the Kyivan Patriarchate expressed regret that MPs had chosen to pursue this initiative as it would merely deepen existing inter-church tensions. The UGCC commented that the date of Christmas could only be changed on the basis of a collective decision by the various faiths, not by politicians. And the UOC described the introduction of the new public holiday as “a decision against the people”.

Only the Roman Catholic Church has expressed appreciation of the decision: it no longer has to wait until evening to celebrate Christmas mass. And according to Archbishop Mokrzycki, Ukrainians already celebrate Christmas according to the Western and the Eastern calendar. The new public holiday gives every family the chance to celebrate this important festival together – and now they can do so twice.

Recommended reading:

Andrii Krawchuk/Thomas Bremer (ed.): Churches in the Ukrainian Crisis. London 2016.
Andriy Mykhaleyko: Die ukrainischen Kirchen nach dem Majdan. RGOW 6-7/2016, 18-21.

Regina Elsner is a research associate at ZOiS. Her current research project deals with the socio-ethical discourse of the Russian Orthodox Church between theological sovereignty and political adaptation.