Christmas in Kyiv, 2016. Photo: Olena Makarenko
Ukrainian lawmakers have voted to make December 25, celebrated as Christmas by the majority of the world’s Christians, as an official state holiday, besides January 7. This means that, starting from 2017, Ukraine will officially celebrate two Christmases. On the same day, the MPs voted to deprive May 2 of its holiday status, so Ukrainians will still have the same number of state holidays in a year – 11.
Prior to that, Ukraine had an official state holiday for Christmas only on 7 January, which, despite being known as the “Orthodox Christmas,” is observed only by 56% of the world’s Orthodox Christians (and 6.6% of all Christians), who use the older calendar of Julius Caesar (also known as the Julian calendar) instead of the one developed by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582 (the Gregorian calendar), used by most countries today.
Why do most Ukrainians celebrate Christmas on January 7?
The Gregorian calendar was introduced because the Julian one wasn’t accurate enough. takes into account the inaccuracy of the Julian calendar, which was 11 minutes longer than the astronomical one. Those “extra” 11 minutes amounted to one extra day each 128 years, which is the reason why the Julian calendar lags behind the Gregorian one by 14 days. The Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople made plans to transition to the new improved Catholic calendar, but it never happened. Hence, up till 1918, Ukraine, as part of the Orthodox Russian empire, lived by the Julian calendar. In 1918, the switch was made and 16 February became 1 March overnight. However, not for the Church, which continued living by the Julian calendar, while the rest of the world was 14 days ahead.
Two holidays like in Moldova, Belarus, Albania
Last year, a draft bill on making 25 December a state holiday alongside 7 January had been registered in parliament, and now came the vote. In it, Ukraine is following in the footsteps of other Orthodox countries. Moldova, Belarus, Albania have two state holidays – on December 25, as well as January 7. This allows citizens to choose when to celebrate one of the largest Church holidays, with the tendency being the new date replacing the old date. Additionally, this holiday is respectful towards Ukrainian Catholics and Protestants who celebrate Christmas on the 25th but don’t have the privilege of an official day off.
Discussions on whether Orthodox Christians should switch to the Gregorian calendar and celebrate Christmas together with most other Christians are ongoing in Ukraine. Some celebrate this idea as a movement away from Russia and towards the West. Some see it as a move towards Christian unity. Some people say Ukraine should not have official days off for religious holidays at all. Some say that Ukraine should make Islamic holidays state holidays too.
But not everyone is enthusiastic about the new holiday. Apart from the Orthodox church conservatives who are not pleased with prospects of being closer to the Catholic, and western world, some are worried that Ukraine’s Christmas traditions may be at risk. In Ukraine, the most boisterous partygoing and consumerist present-giving takes place on New Year’s Eve. Christmas on January 7, on the contrary, is usually celebrated with family, over a vegetarian supper with highly traditional food the recipes of which are said to be millennia old. The meal itself is a highly symbolic ritual, with 12 dishes symbolizing the 12 Apostles of Christ, and episodes like leaving food for the spirits of the ancestors, who are believed to come to the great family gathering on this special day. In the meantime, carolers bring tidings of the good news of Christ’s birth to each family at the table.
Will this unique, and some even say spiritual, tradition be able to withstand the commercialized red-suited Santa Claus Christmas shopping ethos so prevalent in Ukrainian stores around New Year’s even now? Some fear it will not.