Two Christmases in Ukraine: Should the celebrations be seperated to unite the country?

10. May 2024

Tradition or Transition?

“When do you celebrate Christmas?” is a question that was often asked in Ukraine at the end of December 2023. It indirectly inquires whether a person is willing to embrace European Christian traditions and break away from the spiritual world created by Moscow, or if their ties to the past remain strong. The situation with the use of two calendars (Julian and Revised Julian) arose due to the  Russian Orthodox Church’s (ROC) refusal to change to the Revised calendar as the majority of Eastern Orthodox churches had done 100 years ago, including, for example, the churches of Ukraine’s neighbors: Bulgaria, Romania and Slovakia. After several hundred years of domination by the ROC, Ukraine first gained the right to establish an autocephalous (i.e., self-governing) church in 2019, and in 2023 the Orthodox Church of Ukraine became the 10th of 15 Eastern Orthodox churches to adopt the Revised Julian Calendar. Is this process difficult and painful in the context of Russia’s war against Ukraine? Does it have a spatial dimension? During my trip to Kyiv over Christmas, I met with believers to investigate these questions.

Mrs. Nina has long been an active member of the Kyiv Patriarchate community (which arose in 1992 as a result of the movement for the independence of Ukrainian Orthodoxy from the ROC). When I asked her about how the local community switched to the new church calendar, she said:

When the transition to the Revised Julian calendar was discussed in autumn 2022, there were notebooks in lot of churches and people could put their names in one of two lists choosing which calendar they preferred for attending services. People flocked to sign up for the Revised Julian calendar. I also signed up for the new calendar.

The majority of believers in the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) also support the new calendar. However, the situation is not entirely straightforward. Some parishioners “reject Moscow” while others bear strong ties to the old dates. For instance, in 2022, when the village of Sviatopetrivske celebrated the Intercession of the Theotokos (Christian feast of the Mother of God), they held two services on two separate dates. The example of Sviatopetrivske demonstrates how the political decision to transition to the New Julian calendar, which began on September 1, 2023, is gradually taking root in the everyday lives of believers, despite certain dissonances, as church holidays are deeply intertwined with family traditions and long-standing rituals, making quick changes difficult.

My relative Natalia is from Lozova, in Eastern Ukraine. Here, the church belongs to the Moscow Patriarchate. We met in early January of 2023 in Warsaw, where she had gone with her son at the beginning of the war. According to Ukranian tradition, a twelve-dish Christmas Eve supper is prepared on the day before Christmas. Natalia also set a festive table and prepared traditional Kutya (a Slavic Christmas dish made from whole grain wheat with nuts, raisins and other ingredients). I asked her about celebrating Christmas, and her thoughts on the Revised calendar. Her answer was restrained, “We will celebrate in the traditional way”. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate has opposed the change of the calendar since 1923, and this position remains unchanged. Since the opinion of the priest and church leaders holds great weight with parishioners, there is little room for discussion of calendar revision issues among the church community.

Spatial Dispersion of Religious Affiliations in Ukraine

As the transition to the Revised Julian calendar unfolds unevenly in Ukraine, I am concerned with how this process relates to spatial divisions within society. To address this, I look to the geography of Ukrainian Orthodox communities. Prior to the 2014 Russia-Ukraine war, the spatial dispersion of and affiliations to different patriarchates were heterogeneous across Ukraine[1] (see Fig. 2). While there were four Ukrainian Christian churches, only one of them maintained its influence in the five western regions of the country – the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC), which was subordinate to the Vatican but performed the rites according to the Orthodox traditions. In most of the country’s territory, a mix of church communities from three affiliations had formed, with the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP) dominating. The UOC-MP had the largest number of parishes throughout the country (56% of Orthodox parishes), but its presence is dominant only in some administrative regions of eastern and southern Ukraine. The three Eastern Orthodox Churches – UOC-MP, UOC-KP, and UAOC (Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church), each of which maintains a distinct autonomy from the Russian Orthodox Church, namely using Old Church Slavonic or Ukrainian language for church rites and services, sought to exert influence over as much of the country as possible by building or leasing important and large temple complexes. The UOC-MP demonstrates ambition to expand the congregation and move away from the status of a regional church. They have historically prioritized the largest historical temples, having personal and business connections with central and local authorities (Fig. 3).

Communities in Transition

In 2018, the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) was formed by uniting the pro-Ukrainian UOC-KP and UAOC, as well as those communities of the UOC-MP that expressed a desire to transfer. Currently, there is an ongoing confrontation between the leadership of the UOC-MP, which is attempting to maintain ist influence over as many religious communities as possible, and believers whose trust in the pro-Russianchurch has been undermined since the start of the full-scale war. Thus, a transition of communities from the UOC-MP to the OCU is underway. As of January 15th, 2024, 1,600 communities have changed their affiliation (Fig. 4). Legally, such a transition is possible by the decision of two-thirds of the parishioners of the religious community in accordance with the Law of Ukraine of January 31, 2019. The process of transition unfolds differently in every community. For instance, conflicts arise when priests and their inner circle disregard the decisions of the community and prevent new priests from entering the church. Mrs. Nina provided an example of a community in the Kyiv region. Active church members, including her brother, expressed their unanimous desire to transfer to the OCU, where the local priest could continue to serve. The priest stated that his superiors from the UOC-MP would not allow him to do this. If he disobeyed, he may be stripped of his dignity. He was politely escorted out of the church with the words, “Father, go where you need to go”. It appears that if there is a unanimous opinion in the community shared by most of the active parishioners, the transition to the OCU is only a matter of time.

Formally, the UOC-MP controls most Orthodox parishes; yet, only a small portion of the country’s population openly identifies as its believers. According to a survey conducted by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology in July 2022[2], 54% of respondents identify specifically with the OCU, while only 4% currently identify with the UOC-MP. Despite their advantageous locations near churchgoers, many believers have stopped attending UOC-MP temples. Pious people believe that it is better to pray at home than in an enemy church that supports the Kremlin’s aggression. From the survey emerges an understanding that many people who identify with the OCU do not attend church.  Evidently, the mechanism of voluntary transition to the UOC does not work effectively in all localities: Mrs. Nina shared a case from a neighboring parish (Urivka village, Kyiv region), where the issue of ownership of land and church buildings has led to a situation in which the parish is currently helpless in its desire to make such a transition. The most religious residents continue to attend the UOC-MP church because it is the only one in the village.

Returning to the initial question of the calendar reform, it appears from the conversation with Mrs. Nina that the decision to adopt the Revised Julian calendar is not a top-down political decision. Furthermore, the decision to forego the Julian calendar is not merely situational. In 1918, the Ukrainian People’s Republic made the decision to switch to the Gregorian calendar. However, due to the oppression of the Ukrainian Church during the USSR, it was never implemented. Since 1991, the issue of switching to a new calendar has been raised numerous times. Yet, church leaders did not take such steps because the new date order met with resistance from society at large. Therefore, the OCU took gradual steps towards adopting the New Julian calendar. These steps included introducing a day off on December 25th in 2017, granting permission to hold services according to the new calendar from 2022 onwards, and finally transitioning to the Revised Julian calendar on September 1st, 2023, with a three-year transition period.

Celebrating Christmas(es)

For the majority of Ukrainians, the Revised Julian calendar is practically embodied in the change of the date of celebration of major church holidays, first and foremost Christmas. For many years Christmas was celebrated on January 7th, and according to the revised Julian calendar it is December 25th, as in most European countries. How do differing views on when to celebrate affect everyday life, such as secular events, family traditions, and shopping? Looking at this question through the lens of consumer behavior, a survey conducted by Deloitte in November 2023[3] shows 64% of consumers planned to do their Christmas and New Year’s shopping between December 1st and 24th. 45% of the respondents reported their intention to celebrate Christmas on the New Julian calendar. This included 67% of the residents of Western Ukraine, 41% of those in the Center, and 26% of those in the East, consistent with the map of Fig. 4. Additionally, 32% of respondents answered that they will celebrate twice, and only 17% of respondents expressed their intention to celebrate on January 7th. The latter option did not reach 30% in any region of the Ukraine. The double celebration can be said to best illustrate the current state of Ukrainian society, where it is difficult to renounce the past and scary to take a step into the future.

This year, I celebrated Christmas twice. First, I celebrated with my family in Kyiv on December 25th, and then with other relatives in Warsaw on January 7th. Ukrainians have been celebrating two New Year’s (January 1st and January 14thaccording to the Gregorian and Julian calendars respectively) for many decades, which somewhat normalizes two celebrations for the same event. It is unclear how long the transition period will last; it depends not only on the actions of church officials, but also on political factors, such as when and how the war will end. The country’s socio-economic transformations clearly favor the West, which will likely lead to an eastward shift of the geopolitical fault line dividing “East” and “West” that has run through its territory for many centuries. But how can this dividing line, manifested both on maps and in the minds of Ukranians, be changed to finally unite the country? My answer would be to take gradual steps, community by community, to unite around our own Church. Dates may change, but the essence of religious celebrations will remain. Then even such seemingly routine events as the celebration of Christmas may contribute to broader geopolitical shifts.

Author biography:

Olena Kononenko is a researcher at the Georg Simmel Center for Urban Studies of the Humboldt University of Berlin, she was a visiting researcher at the CRC 1265 in 2022. Dr. Olena Kononenko’s current research project is dedicated to post-war/post-disaster urban reconstruction. As a geographer, Olena is interested in investigating how residents perceive changes in the urban landscape and their participation in its transformation.


[1] Razumkov Center. (2021). Peculiarities of religious and church-religious self-determination of citizens of Ukraine: trends 2000-2021 (translated from Ukrainian).  Accessed: January 2023.

[2] Hrushetskyi, A. (2022). Dynamics of religious self-identification of the population of Ukraine: results of a telephone survey conducted on July 6-20, 2022. Accessed: January 2023

[3] Deloitte. (2023). Deloitte research on New Year’s shopping of Ukranians. (translated from Ukrainian). Accessed: January 2023.