The Soviet Union was not really a very hospitable place for religious people. Christmas Day was abolished as a public holiday in 1929, and religious ceremonies were driven underground. However in 1935, at the height of Stalin’s industrialisation and Five Year Plan regimes, and in the aftermath of the Holodmor, the mass famine amongst Ukrainian peasantry in 1931-32 that resulted from the so-called “liquidation of the kulaks” and the forced collectivisation of agricultural landholdings, Stalin was persuaded to reverse this policy and permit Christmas celebrations as a respite from the gruelling Ukrainian winter. Nevertheless Christmas was not formally reinstated in Ukraine until 1991 upon the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the establishment of Ukraine as an independent state.
It is hard to understand now that Ukraine, as part of the Soviet Union, was formally an atheist state and that St Nicholas was frowned upon, presents instead being delivered to children over the Christmas period by a character from Slavic mythology called Did Moroz, Grandfather Frost. The Soviet Union was an extremely hostile environment for those who wished to engage in conventional religious observance and Ukrainian Christianity has had a renaissance only in the last thirty years. Stamping out Christmas, a time of joy and celebration for families and for children in particular, was particularly mean-spirited and typical of Soviet ideological orthodoxy at the expense of happiness and spontaneous fun. It missed the point that Christmas can be a holiday celebrating the family and children for all people, whether practising Christians or of other or no faiths.
After Ukraine’s independence, the Eastern Orthodox Church in Ukraine fell under the Moscow Patriarchate until the schism between Moscow and Constantinople caused by Constantinople granting the Eastern Orthodox Church autocephaly (liturgical and hierarchical independence) in 2018: events I have already described in an earlier diary entry. This was preceded by the government in Kyiv declaring 25 December to be a government holiday in 2017: something that was seem as a hostile act to the Moscow Patriarchate and may in part have been responsible for the schism. Nevertheless as predominantly Orthodox people, the Ukrainians have traditionally celebrated Christmas since Ukraine’s independence in 1991 on 6 or 7 January in accordance with other Orthodox countries. The Julian calendar places Christmas at this time, whereas the Gregorian calendar places it on 25 December. There is in fact no hard and fast rule about this, and on 28 July 2023 the Ukrainian parliament passed legislation officially moving Christmas Day to 25 December of each year.
Nobody seems quite sure how this will affect observance in practice, but the point of the legislative change is obvious: to serve as a snub to Moscow, because in Russia Christmas Day is traditionally celebrated according to the Julian calendar. To repeat, there are no hard and fast rules about the correct day upon which the birth of Christ ought to be celebrated, and these dates have arisen from the decrees of various Catholic and Orthodox Popes over the centuries. You cannot find an answer to this question in the Bible, for example. The point the Ukrainian parliament wanted to make is that Ukraine is now aligning her cultural and religious practices with the West and ever further, and permanently, away from the Russian influence. A Ukrainian friend of mine told me that he thinks in practice it will take two or three years for religious and cultural observance to shift entirely to the celebration of Christmas on 25 December, as in the Catholic tradition. He was also keen to emphasise that this is not a rejection of Orthodoxy per se but simply a re-alignment of Ukrainian society towards western precepts which is the decisive course the Ukrainian people have virtually unanimously adopted in the course of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. They are so disgusted with Russia and her actions that they now show their disgust by wholesale rejection of her cultural traditions.
This may or may not be a neat segue into an issue that has much interested me in my study of the Eastern Orthodox Church in Ukraine, namely the Union of Uzhhorod. Uzhhorod is a historical university town in Ukraine on the border with Slovakia and the Union of Uzhhorod was a decision by 63 priests of the region in the Serbian Orthodox tradition, in 1646, essentially to join the Roman Catholic Church. The reason they did this was because Austro-Hungarian influence was becoming ever stronger in the Ruthenian region (a historical area covering parts of what are now Poland, Slovakia and Ukraine) and there was a fear that the Austro-Hungarian domination of the Ruthenians might entail a return to Serfdom. Serfdom was already prevalent in the Russian Empire to the East and the Ruthenians understandably wanted to avoid this. The policy of returning people to Serfdom was excluded from lands under Roman Catholic influence and hence the Union of Uzhhorod, an almost mythical event until the actual parchment evidencing the agreement and with the signatures of the priests in question was unearthed in 2016, was an exercise in obtaining the political protection of the Church of Rome from malign Austro-Hungarian Serfdom policies in exchange for an element of domination or influence in the liturgy, theology and politics of what would subsequently develop into the Eastern Orthodox Church in Ukraine.
The Union of Uzhhorod was ultimately a piece of liturgical pragmatism on the part of the Ukrainian Orthodox Christian community, when they realised that the traditions of the Church of Rome would afford them far better political protection than the villainies that lay to the east amidst the Russian Empire. The parallel is not precise with events today in moving Christmas Day, and Ukraine will be one of the few Orthodox Christian countries that celebrates Christmas according to the Gregorian calendar essentially for political reasons. Nevertheless there is nothing preventing the Eastern Orthodox Church in Ukraine from following the legislative guidance of Kyiv’s governing institutions and it is part of a process of cultural assimilation into western standards and traditions that Ukraine is so determined to undertake.
It is hard not to sympathise with the Ukrainian determination to shake off all things Russian, given what they have been through in Soviet times, since independence in 1991 and in particular since the various Russian invasions of Ukrainian territory that began in 2014. My only plea is for tolerance for those Ukrainians who wish to continue to celebrate Christmas according to the Julian calendar. Religious observance is, after all, a matter of personal conviction rather than legislative dictate, and this is an essential precept of western liberal values.