Orthodox Christians in Russia and Ukraine, Egypt, Ethiopia among other places, celebrated Christmas on January 7th. Most branches of this traditionalist church retain the Julian calendar, a precursor to the Gregorian calendar used in most countries (the name refers to reforms by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582), which puts Christmas on December 25th.
Interestingly, Orthodox churches in Romania, Bulgaria, Cyprus, and Greece celebrate Christmas on December 25th. As an outlier, the Armenian Orthodox Church observes Christmas Day on January 6th. This was the original date for Christmas until the 4th century.
Ukrainian Orthodox Church
In recent years, in the wake of Russian attacks on Ukraine, Christmas has gained new significance. For decades Ukraine’s Russian-affiliated branch was the only one in the country recognized by Orthodox church leaders. But on January 5th, 2019, the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, a separate body with no ties to Russia, was granted self-governing status by the head of the Orthodox church in Constantinople. What caused the split and how does it play into tensions between the two countries today?
Few people in Orthodox Christian countries are churchgoers. Around 12% of the population in Ukraine and 6% in Russia attend regularly, according to the Pew Research Center, a think-tank and pollster. But a far higher share—78% of Ukrainians and 71% of Russians—identify as Orthodox Christians.
Religion is linked to national identity: 51% of Ukrainians say it is important for a person to be Orthodox to be truly Ukrainian, and 57% of Russians say the same. Their Christian history is long and closely entwined. The faith arrived in the ninth century in Kievan Rus, a state that spanned modern-day Belarus, Ukraine, and western Russia. Russian leaders, including Vladimir Putin, have traced the roots of all three countries back to this kingdom in an effort to justify their regional hegemony. As national boundaries shifted, the shared origin of the Russian and Ukrainian churches bound them together. After the fall of the Soviet Union, officially atheist, Ukraine’s church remained a subsidiary of the Russian patriarchate.
Is Ukraine a nation with full sovereignty or a nation-state that is truly part of Russia? I don’t have the time or maps to share with you to tell the whole story, but suffice to say that the landmass that is now Ukraine was historically occupied by many peoples including: Kievian Rus, Hapsburg Austria, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Crimean Khanate, the Golden Horde (Mongols). Flat fertile lands are easy and desirable to conquer.
While Ukrainians would have to wait until 1918 for a first taste of modern statehood, the concept of a Ukrainian nation had already been around for hundreds of years by that point and was a familiar element of the European geopolitical landscape. Indeed, as long ago as 1731, French thinker Voltaire was moved to write, “Ukraine has always aspired to be free.”
The December 1991 referendum on Ukrainian independence from the USSR was backed by commanding majorities in every region of Ukraine, producing an overall 90% landslide. This result stunned many in Moscow, who had confidently expected to see far less support for an independent Ukraine. Weeks later, the USSR ceased to exist.
On the heels of Ukrainian independence Russian street signs were replaced with Ukrainian signs, Soviet statues and symbols were removed (cancel culture?!) and the educational system used Ukrainian over the Russian language.
I have been learning about Ukraine under the USSR by watching many videos from Sergei Sputnikoff via the Ushanka Show videos . Sergei was born in the Soviet Union and lived in Kiev, the capital of Ukraine. His parents were from two different parts of Ukraine and spoke Russian as a common language, so Sergei was a native Russian speaker. He married an American woman and lives in the USA, and his book American Diaries 1995 was about him working as a young man in a Summer Camp in Michigan for inner-city youth.
God bless you all,
Rev. Curtis Ehrgott
Photo by Alexandra Lande. The Golden Dome of the Kyivo-Pecherska Lavra and Moon at Evening.