Ukraine’s official Christmas holiday has been shifted from 7th January to 25th December. This calendrical change is above all a way to assert difference from Russia, but the symbolic message is not without costs.

Everywhere in Europe, rituals to mark the Winter solstice have long been focused on the Christian narrative of the birth of Jesus. The son of God is said to have come down to earth a few days after the actual solstice. According to the ancient Julian calendar, Christmas Day now falls on 7th January. A reformed calendar was disseminated from 1582 on the authority of Pope Gregory XIII. While most of Europe has come to recognize the Gregorian calendar for both religious and civil purposes, east Slavs have retained the Julian calendar in their liturgical life. The Russian Orthodox Church is the largest of numerous eastern Christian congregations which celebrate the beginning of the Christmas cycle at the point when most of the world is putting the decorations away for another year. Given the deeply embedded sacred character of these rituals, passing a law that brings Christmas forwards is a brave intervention on the part of the secular authorities. The legislation signed by Volodymyr Zelensky in 2023 is without precedent since the era when the Communist Party of the Soviet Union under Stalin sought to abolish Christmas altogether.

Diverse Eastern Christian Churches

I stumbled upon east Slav rituals during fieldwork in Southeast Poland in the socialist era. The Uniate or Greek Catholic Church (I use the popular name introduced in the eighteenth century for ex-Orthodox Christians “reconciled” with Rome) was repressed at the time. By the 1980s, however, it had re-established semi-clandestine operations under the protection of the dominant Roman Catholic Church. Like the Orthodox, the Greek Catholics used an unreformed Julian calendar. For Poland’s Ukrainian minority, which provided the bulk of the faithful, continuing to practise an eastern Christian liturgy according to the Julian calendar was an important element in their ethnic identification. Before the socialist era, in regions where west and east Slavs intermingled, Christians of western and eastern rites had celebrated each other’s holy days reciprocally and respectfully. Following the collapse of socialism, it became possible for Greek Catholics to operate legally once again, henceforth classified officially as Ukrainian Catholics. Their public revival was most visible on 19th January, the Feast of the Epiphany, known to eastern Christians as Jordan. After mass, the priest would lead the procession to the nearest stream or river, where Holy Water was drawn and blessed to serve the household in the coming year.

Eastern Christianity dominates throughout Ukraine, but unlike the Roman Catholic Church in Poland it is not unified. In the west (corresponding approximately to the eastern half of the former Habsburg province of Galicia), Greek Catholics are the most numerous kind of Christian. Historically, in terms of religious practice differentiation from Roman Catholics mattered more than flagging differences with the Orthodox. This is the region where Ukrainian nationalism was strongest in the twentieth century. A recent consultation by the Greek Catholic hierarchy indicated that a majority of the faithful now favoured a switch to the western calendar. Elsewhere, Orthodox Christians have been bitterly divided by politics. Zelensky’s law is not a bolt from the blue. It was the culmination of years of struggle on the part of nationalizing elites to create a unified autocephalous Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) freed from the authority of the Moscow Patriarch. Even before the Russian invasion, priests and believers who had hitherto known only the latter orientation came under immense pressure to transfer their affiliation to the OCU.

The shift to what is referred to in ecclesiastical diplomacy as the revised Julian calendar (corresponding essentially to the Gregorian) is presented as being in no way anti-Orthodox. It is above all a way to assert difference from Russia. As Father Andriy, a young Orthodox priest, expressed it to a BBC reporter, this is simultaneously perceived as a “returning back to Europe, where we belong.“1 But the course of Zelensky and the OCU is not without risks. It necessarily sows division within families with affiliations to different Orthodox churches, which will henceforth celebrate Christmas on different days. In 2023 there was no public holiday on 25th December due to martial law, while 7th January 2024 was a holiday because it fell on a Sunday. In future, many families will doubtless observe both holidays. If citizens enjoy a public holiday on the 25th December but continue to take days off work to enjoy private celebrations two weeks later, the change will have economic costs.

Interpreting Temporal Transformation

Symbolic costs and benefits are harder to quantify. The authorities point out that Orthodox countries within the EU (Greece, Bulgaria, Romania) adopted the revised calendar generations ago. The transformation may nonetheless be experienced by some Ukrainians as cultural westernization. It is a more radical westernization than the original establishment of the Greek Catholic Church in the wake of the Counter Reformation, which colonized eastern Christianity but allowed the faithful to retain not only their distinctive rituals but also their calendar. Bishops have been granted scope to allow a gentle transition over the next few years, but the changes are to apply to all the fixed day Great Feasts,  i.e. to the Saints’ days that provide the believer with orientation and meaning through the entire year. Moveable feasts are more elusive but ecclesiastical committees are already hard at work to standardize the timing of Easter.

Greek Catholic Jordan rituals in Southeast Poland (Przemyśl, on the river San), 6th January 2024. Image: Stanisław Stępień

In short, these changes may cause misgivings for at least some Ukrainians. As for the Greek Catholic minority in Poland, these Ukrainians have been swept along in the patriotic wave. In 2024 in Przemyśl, Jordan rituals coincided for the first time with the Epiphany rituals of the majority Roman Catholic Church on 6th January. The procession from the Greek Catholic cathedral to the river San was swollen with the participation of refugees from Ukraine. But local Roman Catholic clergy accustomed to taking part when the celebration was held on 19th January were conspicuously absent, because they were busy in their own churches.

For some believers, the change is welcome for practical reasons. In Catholic Poland the feast of the Epiphany is a public holiday, so they can mark Jordan without needing to take a day off work. But it is possible that, here too, not everyone welcomes the change to a ritual calendar that survived the socialist era intact but must now be abandoned because of a nationalizing neighbour. This may feel to some like a diminution of the pluralism of their society. Only the Polish Autocephalous Orthodox Church (membership predominantly of Polish ethnicity) continues to follow the Julian calendar, despite widespread aspersions that this stance is symbolically pro-Russian.  

The top-down imposition of a new calendar and suppression of local diversity are investigated around the world by anthropologists under rubrics such as cultural imperialism. These processes tend to be overlooked when they take place within Europe, among different kinds of Christian, in the course of nation-building and geopolitical realignment.

Perhaps we shall know that Russia has lost its war in Ukraine when the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church embraces the revised Julian calendar.

A different version of this text appeared on The Conversation.

  1. James Waterhouse, “Ukraine war: New Christmas date marks shift away from Russia”,23 December 2023, []