KYIV, Ukraine (AP) – Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy signed a law Friday moving the official Christmas Day to Dec. 25 from Jan. 7, the day the Russian Orthodox Church observes it.
The explanatory note attached to the law said its aim is to “abandon the Russian heritage”, including “imposing the celebration of Christmas” on January 7. It cited Ukrainians’ “relentless, successful struggle for their identity” and “the desire of all Ukrainians to live their lives with their own traditions, holidays,” fueled by Russia’s 17-month-old aggression against the country.
Last year, some Ukrainians already celebrated Christmas on December 25in a gesture that represented separation from Russia, its culture and religious traditions.
The law also moves Ukrainian Statehood Day to July 15 from July 28 and Defenders of Ukraine Day to October 1 from October 14.
The Russian Orthodox Church, which claims sovereignty over Orthodoxy in Ukraine, and some other Eastern Orthodox churches continue to use the old Julian calendar. Christmas falls 13 days later on that calendar, or January 7, than it does on the Gregorian calendar used by most church and secular groups.
The Catholic Church first adopted the modern, more astronomically accurate Gregorian calendar in the 16th century. Protestants and some Orthodox churches have since adjusted their own calendars for the purpose of calculating Christmas and Easter.
Ukraine’s religious landscape has been fractured for years. There is two branches of Orthodox Christianity in the country, one aligned with the Russian Church, although enjoying wide autonomy, the other completely independent of it. The Orthodox Church in Ukraine, the branch separated from the Russian Church, announced earlier this year that it was switching to the revised Julian calendar, which marks Christmas on December 25.
Its leadership last year allowed believers to celebrate the holiday on December 25.
Russian state news agency RIA Novosti reported on Saturday that the rival Orthodox Church, which is aligned with the Russian Orthodox Church, vowed to continue celebrating Christmas on January 7.
Russian President Vladimir Putin told reporters on Saturday that the move “is a sign of something that has been happening for centuries” and that it “has to do with the relationship between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox.”
Zelenskyy traveled on Saturday to the war-torn Donetsk region in eastern Ukraine, which Russia illegally annexed but only partially occupies, and met with members of the country’s special operations forces. Zelenskyy noted in an online statement that Saturday marks their official day of recognition and also the anniversary of the deadly attack on the Olenivka prison in the Russian-controlled part of the region, where dozens of prisoners of war were killed.
Russia and Ukraine blamed each other for the attack, with both sides saying the attack was premeditated in an attempt to cover up atrocities. A United Nations fact-finding mission requested by Russia and Ukraine was sent to investigate the killings, but the team was disbanded in January 2023 due to security concerns.
Zelenskyy described the attack as one of Russia’s “most heinous and cruel crimes” in a video statement on Saturday.
In a separate Telegram statement, he hailed the soldiers of the Donetsk region for “bringing closer the day when all our land and all our people will be free from the occupiers” and emphasized the role of special operations forces in the recent recapture of the village of Staromaiorske in the area.
His visit to the east comes days after Western and Russian officials said Kyiv’s forces were stepping up attacks in the southeast of the country as part of Ukraine’s counter-offensive.
Putin said Saturday that the intensity of Ukrainian attacks along the front line has decreased “compared to two days ago.” He reiterated that Russian forces are successfully repelling all attacks and in some parts of the front line are even launching successful counteroffensive operations.
Litvinova reported from Tallinn, Estonia.