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

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


For most 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 at Christmas services. . Putin’s proposal was quickly dismissed as “hypocrisy” and “propaganda” by Ukrainian officials, and shelling has continued on both sides.

Orthodox Christians are estimated to number 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 Oriental Orthodox branch.

Before Russia’s full-scale war against Ukraine, Kiev had been pushing to create its own independent Orthodox church separate from Moscow, and the rift only widened after Putin’s takeover last year. In October, a branch of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church announced it would allow its churches to celebrate Christmas on December 25, instead of January 7.

As Orthodox Christmas falls on Saturday, here are answers to some of the top 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 standardize Christian holidays by introducing the Gregorian calendar, which set the birth of Jesus Christ as December 25. The Orthodox Church split into its own branch of Christianity during the Great Schism of 1054, after years of growth. tensions over 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.

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

The movement was accelerated by the Russia-fueled conflict 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 Eastern Orthodox believers around the world – approved the creation of an independent Orthodox. Church of Ukraine and revoked a centuries-old agreement that gave the Patriarch in Moscow authority over the country’s churches.

In January 2019, Bartholomew 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, 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 a church independent of Moscow has angered Putin, who has made the restoration of the so-called “Russian world” a central part of his foreign policy and has dismissed Ukrainian national identity as illegitimate.

Russia’s 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 occupation of Ukraine.

Leaders of the branch, known as the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC), cut 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 occupation.

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

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

The announcement was met with great skepticism by the Ukrainian side and was immediately rejected by Kiev.

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

Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak responded to Putin’s move by saying Russia must withdraw from “occupied territories” in Ukraine before any “temporary ceasefire”.

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

The proposal for a temporary ceasefire 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, nurseries and churches on the 25th and New Year.”

On Friday, the conflict in Ukraine continued past the ceasefire’s proposed start time of Moscow noon (04:00 ET), as CNN crews observed incoming and outgoing artillery fire around Bakhmut, in eastern Ukraine.

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