Ukrainians Won’t Let Russia Steal Their Christmas

December 24, 2022Nolan Peterson
Christmas Ukraine

A Christmas tree in Kyiv's Sophia Square on Dec. 23, 2022. Photo by Nolan Peterson/Coffee or Die.

KYIV, Ukraine — Maria Gusachenko decided to downsize her Christmas tree this year. Rather than a full tree with lights and ornaments, she decorated a single fir branch with a few blue and yellow ribbons, Ukraine’s national colors, and then topped it with a Ukrainian flag made from yarn.

“I’m proud to be Ukrainian,” said Gusachenko, who is from the city of Dnipro and evacuated to Germany with her daughter after the full-scale war began.

“This will be a hard Christmas. We miss our family, and we want to go home,” she told Coffee or Die Magazine via email. “But we will celebrate.”

Ukrainian Christmas tree, Christmas Ukraine

Maria Gusachenko's Christmas tree. Photo courtesy of Maria Gusachenko.

Russian missile and drone strikes have left millions of Ukrainians without power and interrupted their access to heating and running water. The hard winter weather has set in, and temperatures consistently dip below zero. A bloody ground war has stalled along a front line in eastern and southern Ukraine, and the human toll of Russia’s invasion, in both civilian and military lives, is steadily worsening.

An outside observer may be inclined to assume that amid these extraordinary hardships, most Ukrainians may not be in the mood to celebrate this Christmas. Moreover, you may assume they have little to be thankful for, after a year of such constant and severe suffering.

But you’d be wrong.

Kyiv Christmas Ukraine

A worshipper inside Kyiv's St. Volodymyr Cathedral on Friday, Dec. 23, 2022. Photo by Nolan Peterson/Coffee or Die Magazine.

Despite the blackouts and the bombardments, despite the fact that another hard year of war lies ahead, Ukrainians' indomitable will to resist shows itself, once again, in their desire to celebrate Christmas this year.

“There are no shining lights of the New Year period in Ukraine, but there is still a desire to light the lights on the window, put up a Christmas tree and tell the children, ‘We will remember the holiday that Russia will not take away from us.' This is what my friends say to their children,” Aliona Guseva, a public relations professional who lives in Kyiv, told Coffee or Die.

She added, “And this is what we adults say to each other: ‘Come to me if I have electricity, and I will come if you have it.’”

The Christmas tree in Shevchenko Park is unlit — but it stands. The Christmas tree in Sophia Square, normally an illuminated spectacle, is drastically downsized — but it’s still there.

City Hall decided to cancel Kyiv’s traditional holiday market, but you can still find a few entrepreneurial sidewalk vendors selling mulled wine. And across the city, Kyiv's indomitable flower vendors sell Christmas wreaths.

Kyiv Christmas Ukraine

A holiday display in front of Kyiv's Milk Bar restaurant on Thursday, Dec. 22, 2022. Photo by Nolan Peterson/Coffee or Die Magazine.

Some holiday decorations reflect the wartime Christmas. Milk Bar, a popular restaurant on Shota Rustaveli Street, is well known for its elaborate holiday decorations. This year’s Christmas display features a gingerbread man and woman, both wearing army fatigues.

The X-Park Sport Club in Kyiv operates a souped-up SUV, equipped with flashing lights and a supercharged stereo, which drives laps through the city trailing Ukrainian flags and blaring a playlist of Christmas classics, including Jose Feliciano’s "Feliz Navidad."

Ukraine has incrementally adopted Western cultural traditions since the Soviet collapse in 1991. February's full-scale invasion finalized Ukrainians' cultural divorce from Russia, including changes to the ways they celebrate Christmas.

In particular, nearly half of Ukrainians now support celebrating Christmas on Dec. 25 — not on Jan. 7, as Russians do.

Kyiv Christmas

A worshipper in Kyiv's St. Volodymyr Cathedral on Friday, Dec. 23, 2022. Photo by Nolan Peterson/Coffee or Die Magazine.

The Julian and Gregorian calendars split in the 16th century. The more accurate Gregorian calendar, which celebrates Christmas on Dec. 25, was adopted in predominantly Catholic and Protestant Western European societies. The Julian calendar, which celebrates Christmas on Jan. 7, remained the standard among the national churches in Eastern Orthodox countries, including Ukraine and Russia.

Ukraine’s parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, passed a law in November 2017 making the Gregorian calendar’s Dec. 25 Christmas a public holiday. Previously, only the Julian calendar's Christmas was an official holiday in Ukraine. Now both dates are recognized.

The percentage of Ukrainians who support celebrating Christmas on Dec. 25 rose from 26% in 2021 to 44% this year, according to a poll released on Dec. 19 by Rating, a Ukrainian think tank. The poll found that 11% of Ukrainians celebrate Christmas only on Dec. 25, and 25% celebrate the holiday on both Dec. 25 and Jan. 7.

Kyiv Christmas Ukraine

A worshipper inside St. Michael's Golden-Domed Monastery in Kyiv on Friday, Dec. 23, 2022. Photo by Nolan Peterson/Coffee or Die Magazine.

In January 2019, the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, the guiding body of the global Orthodox Church, granted the Orthodox Church of Ukraine full independence, or autocephaly, removing it from control of the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow.

The Orthodox Church of Ukraine recognizes Christmas on Jan. 7. But this year the Ukrainian church announced it will also hold Christmas services on Dec. 25 for those who wish to celebrate on that date.

Thus, at the entrance to St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery in central Kyiv, which belongs to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, a sign posted to the main door lists times for Christmas services on both Dec. 25 and Jan. 7.

Kyiv Christmas Ukraine

The Christmas tree in Kyiv's Shevchenko Park on Friday, Dec. 23, 2022. Photo by Nolan Peterson/Coffee or Die Magazine.

Holidays are perennial markers of time’s passage through which we can take stock of how little or how much life has changed each intervening year. This Christmas will be a time for many Ukrainians to reflect on what they’ve endured these past 10 months. It will also be a time to celebrate their amazing resistance against Russia’s onslaught, and, despite all they've suffered, the indestructibility of their hope.

"Yes, the war is exhausting and fatigue has a cumulative effect, but we have learned to be phoenixes," Guseva said. "There is no place for fear, but there is room for calm optimism."

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy echoed that sentiment in his speech before US Congress on Wednesday. He said:

“We'll celebrate Christmas — and even if there is no electricity, the light of our faith in ourselves will not be put out. If Russian missiles attack us, we'll do our best to protect ourselves. If they attack us with Iranian drones and our people will have to go to bomb shelters on Christmas Eve, Ukrainians will still sit down at a holiday table and cheer up each other. And we don't have to know everyone's wish as we know that all of us, millions of Ukrainians, wish the same — victory. Only victory.”

Read Next: Ukrainians React to Zelenskyy’s Historic Washington Trip

Nolan Peterson
Nolan Peterson
Nolan Peterson is a senior editor for Coffee or Die Magazine and the author of Why Soldiers Miss War. A former US Air Force special operations pilot and a veteran of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Nolan is now a conflict journalist and author whose adventures have taken him to all seven continents. In addition to his memoirs, Nolan has published two fiction collections. He lives in Kyiv, Ukraine, with his wife, Lilya.
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