Orthodox Christmas Moves to December

Orthodox priests of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine conduct a Christmas service inside Uspenskyi (Holy Dormition) Cathedral, at the compound of the Kyiv Pechersk Lavra monastery, previously used by Ukrainian Orthodox Church branch loyal to Moscow, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, in Kyiv, Ukraine January 7, 2023. REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko

The Orthodox Church of Ukraine has allowed its clergy to conduct religious festivities on December 25 in response to increased demands from Ukrainian people to reject any associations with Russia. For many Ukrainian Orthodox Christians, this year will mark the first time they celebrate Christmas on Dec. 25.The move  is meant to distance the church from the Russian Orthodox Church, which has traditionally celebrated Christmas on Jan. 7 every year.

The change was made official in July, when Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy signed a law to move the Christmas holiday. A note attached to the law said the goal is to “abandon the Russian heritage,” citing the “relentless, successful struggle” for Ukrainian identity and their desire to have their own traditions and holidays. In terms of the research and surveys in Ukraine, most of the parishioners are in favour to switch to the newer calendar.

In Lithuania, the decision is aimed at “having a more comfortable life in Lithuania and in harmony with the majority of Orthodox Christians in Europe and the Western world”, reported Father Gintaras Sungaila. “Such a decision will harmonize the Orthodox liturgical dates with the Lithuanian calendar of public holidays, which includes the Christmas Eve, Christmas and the Assumption Day, also celebrated by the Orthodox, and these are public holidays. It will also make life easier for mixed families who until now have had to celebrate holidays twice,” the priest said.

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The decision was made earlier this year by all Constantinople Orthodox parishes in Lithuania. Currently, there are four parishes in Vilnius and one each in Kaunas, Klaipėda, Šiauliai, Anykščiai, Tauragė and Elektrėnai, Songaila said. Most Orthodox Christian communities in Lithuania, however, are under the Patriarchate of Moscow and celebrate holidays according to the Julian calendar. Priests have the option to continue to serve according to the old calendar, if there are believers who wish to do so. Many communities under the Patriarchate of Constantinople around the world follow the new calendar. The patriarchate believes that the calendar is a matter of local tradition, not a matter of faith, and that communities are free to choose the calendar they prefer.

The Orthodox Christian communities under the Constantinople Patriarchate are also seeking to formally establish an ecclesiastical structure in Lithuania and are awaiting the final decision from the patriarchate.

The community split when five former priests of the Moscow Patriarchate were defrocked last year by Metropolitan Innokentiy, but were later reinstated by Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople in February. The Moscow Patriarchate accused the clergy of canonical offenses, but Constantinople stated that the priests were not removed for breaking church rules, but for their position on the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Orthodox Christians in Lithuania are one of nine traditional religious communities in the country. According to the 2021 census, 3.75 percent of the population identify as Orthodox Christians (in addition to 0.65 percent Old Believers), a community of some 105,000.