What is Orthodox Christmas and why is it in the spotlight this year?


In much of the Western world, Christmas is celebrated on December 25, according to the Gregorian calendar. However, in a distinction that dates back centuries, Orthodox Christians follow the Julian calendar and mark the feast on January 7.

Orthodox Christmas – and the long-standing rift between the Russian Orthodox Church and other Orthodox groups – has been thrust into the spotlight this year by Russian President Vladmir Putin’s call for a temporary 36-hour ceasefire in Ukraine to allow Orthodox followers to attend Christmas services. . . Putin’s proposal was quickly dismissed as “hypocrisy” and “propaganda” by Ukrainian officials, and shelling has continued from both sides.

Orthodox Christians are estimated to be between 200 and 300 million people worldwide. Majority Orthodox countries include Russia, Ukraine and Greece, whose churches are part of the Eastern Orthodox branch, which is also followed by most Christians in the Middle East. There are also significant Orthodox communities in Egypt and Ethiopia, most of which belong to the smaller Eastern Orthodox branch.

Before Russia’s full-scale war in Ukraine, Kyiv had been pushing to establish its own independent Orthodox Church separate from Moscow, and the schism only widened in the wake of Putin’s invasion last year. In October, a branch of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church announced that it would allow its churches to celebrate Christmas on December 25, instead of January 7.

Since Orthodox Christmas falls on Saturday, here are the answers to some of the key questions.

The dispute within the Christian faith over when to officially recognize the birth of Jesus Christ dates back centuries.

Pope Gregory XIII in 1582 decided to normalize Christian holidays with the introduction of the Gregorian calendar, which placed the birth of Jesus Christ on December 25. The Orthodox Church split into its own branch of Christianity during the Great Schism of 1054, after years of growth. tensions due to religious and political differences.

As a result, Orthodox Christians chose not to adopt Pope Gregory’s new calendar and continued to adhere to the Julian calendar.

Young people hold a diorama of the Nativity of Christ during a religious service to celebrate Orthodox Christmas in St. Louis.  Clement's Cathedral in Skopje on January 6.

In recent years, a large part of Ukraine’s Orthodox community has tried to distance itself from Moscow.

The movement was accelerated by the conflict Russia fueled in eastern Ukraine starting in 2014 and further strengthened in 2018, after Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople, a Greek cleric considered the spiritual leader of Orthodox believers Orientals throughout the world, endorsed the establishment of an independent Orthodox. Church of Ukraine and revoked a century-old agreement that gave the Patriarch of Moscow authority over the country’s churches.

In January 2019, Bartomeu signed a decree called a “tomos” that officially granted independence to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. This broke the church’s centuries-old ties with the Russian church.

Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, which has been closely aligned with the Russian state under Putin, responded by cutting ties with Bartholomew. The emergence of an independent church in Moscow has infuriated Putin, who has made the restoration of the so-called “Russian world” a centerpiece of his foreign policy and rejected Ukrainian national identity as illegitimate.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 has exacerbated the divide between the two countries’ Orthodox churches and highlighted fundamental ideological differences.

In May 2022, a branch of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church that had remained loyal to Moscow after the 2019 split announced it would break with the Russian church over the invasion of Ukraine.

People dressed in traditional Ukrainian costumes sing Christmas carols in Lviv, western Ukraine.

Leaders of the branch, known as the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC), severed ties with Moscow after Kirill threw his support behind the war and put the church firmly behind Putin. Even before the decision of May 27, 2022, more than 400 parishes had already left the UOC-Moscow Patriarchate after the invasion.

Kirill remains outspoken in his support for Russia’s invasion, announcing in a sermon in September 2022 that Russian soldiers who died in the war against Ukraine will be cleansed of all their sins. “He’s sacrificing himself for others,” she said. “I am sure that this sacrifice erases all the sins a person has committed.”

In a surprise move on Thursday, Putin ordered his defense minister to implement a temporary ceasefire in Ukraine for 36 hours. The president’s order came after Kirill called for a ceasefire between January 6 and 7 to celebrate Orthodox Christmas.

The announcement was met with great skepticism by Ukraine and immediately rejected by Kyiv.

During his late-night speech on Thursday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Russia aimed to use Orthodox Christmas “as a cover” to resupply its forces and halt Ukrainian advances in the eastern Donbas region.

Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak responded to Putin’s decision by saying that Russia must leave the “occupied territories” in Ukraine before any “temporary truce”.

“Keep the hypocrisy to yourself,” Podolyak tweeted. The adviser later described Putin’s order as “purely propaganda”, adding: “There is not the slightest desire to end the war. Above all, let me remind you that only Russia attacks targets civilians with missiles / drones, including places of religious worship, and it does so precisely during the Christmas holidays.”

The proposal for a temporary truce also raised eyebrows among the international community.

US President Joe Biden expressed skepticism on Thursday, telling reporters he was “reluctant to respond to anything Putin says.” I found it interesting. He was ready to bomb hospitals, daycare centers and churches on the 25th and New Year’s Eve.”

On Friday, the conflict in Ukraine continued past the ceasefire’s proposed start time of noon Moscow time (4 a.m. ET), as CNN crews observed incoming artillery fire and exiting around Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine.

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