Everywhere in Europe, rituals to mark the winter solstice have long been focused on the Christian narrative of the birth of Jesus. Yet in the ancient Julian calendar, which has gradually been falling out of synch with the Earth’s orbit around the Sun, Christmas Day now falls on January 7, over two weeks later.
A reformed calendar was first disseminated in 1582 on the authority of Pope Gregory XIII. While most of Europe has come to recognise the Gregorian calendar for both religious and civil purposes, a number of eastern Slavic churches – both Orthodox and Catholic – have retained the Julian calendar in their liturgical life.
Given the deeply embedded sacred character of church rituals, passing a law that brings Christmas forwards is a brave intervention on the part of secular authorities. Yet this is what Ukraine’s president, Volodymr Zelensky, has recently done. The legislation, signed in May 2023, is without precedent since the era when the Communist Party of the Soviet Union under Stalin sought to abolish Christmas altogether.
Eastern Christianity dominates throughout Ukraine, but unlike the Roman Catholic Church in Poland it is not unified. In the west of the country, Greek Catholics are the most numerous kind of Christian. Historically, differentiation from Roman Catholics mattered more than flagging differences with the Orthodox churches.
Western Ukraine is where nationalist sentiment was strongest in the 20th century. A recent consultation by the Greek Catholic bishops indicated that a majority of the faithful now favoured a switch to the western calendar.
Elsewhere, Orthodox Christians have been bitterly divided by politics. Zelensky’s law was not a bolt from the blue. It was the culmination of years of struggle on the part of nationalising elites to create a unified Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) that was not subject to the authority of the Moscow patriarch.
Even before the Russian invasion, priests and believers who had previously known only the latter orientation were under immense pressure to transfer their affiliation to the OCU.
The shift to what is referred to in ecclesiastical diplomacy as the revised Julian calendar (largely corresponding to the Gregorian calendar) is presented as being in no way anti-Orthodox. It is above all a way to assert difference from Russia. As Father Andriy, a young Orthodox priest, told the BBC, this is simultaneously perceived as a “returning back to Europe, where we belong.”
Costs and benefits
But the course of Zelensky and the OCU is not without risks. It necessarily sows division within families whose members belong to different Orthodox churches, celebrating Christmas on different days. In 2023 there was no public holiday on December 25 due to martial law, while January 7 2024 is a holiday because it falls on a Sunday.
In future, many families will doubtless observe both holidays. If citizens enjoy a public holiday on the December 25 but continue to take days off work to enjoy private celebrations two weeks later, the change will have economic costs.
Symbolic costs and benefits are harder to quantify. The authorities point out that Orthodox countries within the EU (Greece, Bulgaria, Romania) have long made use of the revised Julian calendar. The transformation may nonetheless be experienced by some Ukrainians as cultural westernisation.
It is a more radical westernisation than the original establishment of the Greek Catholic Church in the wake of the Counter-Reformation, which colonised eastern Christianity but allowed the faithful to retain not only their distinctive rituals but also their calendar.
It remains unclear if Zelensky’s changes will be followed up consequentially to affect all the saints’ days that provide the believer with orientation and meaning through the entire year. Moveable feasts are more elusive but ecclesiastical committees are already hard at work to standardise the timing of Easter.
In short, the new legislation may be not welcome to all Ukrainians. As for the Greek Catholic minority in Poland, these Ukrainians too have been swept along.
But while the anti-Russia message is popular here too, not everyone welcomes the abandonment of a ritual calendar that survived the socialist era intact but must now be abandoned because of a nationalising neighbour. To have holy water blessed on January 6, when their Jordan coincides with the Epiphany of the dominant Roman Catholic Church, may feel like a diminution of the pluralism of their society.
The top-down imposition of a new religious calendar and suppression of local diversity are often seen from the outside as cultural imperialism. These processes are frequently overlooked when they take place within Europe, among different kinds of Christian. Perhaps we shall know that Russia has lost its war in Ukraine when the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church embraces the revised Julian calendar.