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For the first time in over a century, Ukrainians celebrate Christmas on December 25: NPR

For the first time in over a century, Ukrainians celebrate Christmas on December 25. Ukraine used to celebrate this holiday next month, like Russia. Today, they believe their future lies in the West.



ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

For the first time in over a century, Ukrainians celebrate Christmas on this day, December 25. The bells rang this morning in kyiv to mark this new holiday. Ukraine observed the holiday next month, as did Russia. Today, Ukrainians believe their future lies in the West. NPR’s Joanna Kakissis celebrates in kyiv. Hi, Joanna.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.

SHAPIRO: How did this date change happen and why is it important?

KAKISSIS: So, you know, this change actually happened over the summer, a few months ago, when President Volodymyr Zelenskyy signed a law that officially moved the legal holiday of Christmas to the 25th. But the Ukrainians have been talking about it for years. Only after the large-scale invasion of Russia everything became very urgent, Ukrainians simply wanted to free themselves from all Russian traditions, including the use of the Julian calendar for holidays. On this calendar, Christmas is January 7. This is when Russians celebrate it. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church did hold Christmas services on this date last year, but this year, after the legal holiday was moved, its church followed suit.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing in a language other than English).

KAKISSIS: We hear the noise of a Christmas service at Saint-Michel Cathedral. This is the famous golden-domed church in kyiv, and the church was packed today for the service.

SHAPIRO: But of course, it’s a difficult Christmas for Ukrainians. The counter-offensive is at a standstill. Russian forces attack the east and south. Ukrainian troops are running out of ammunition because their main Western partners, the United States and the European Union, are blocking crucial military aid. How does everyone feel about this?

KAKISSIS: Well, Ari, people are very worried about what’s coming next. Ukrainian lawmakers and soldiers told me: Look, if we don’t get more ammunition, we’re going to lose this war. And the rest of Ukrainians feel it too. I spoke to a young travel agent and mother, Oksana Shabliy. She was at a Christmas concert that I was also at. She lives in a Kiev high-rise with her husband and their 7-year-old daughter, and she fears a Russian missile could hit her apartment if Ukraine runs out of munitions, like the shells that power air defense. You know, these air defenses shoot down Russian missiles and keep people in cities safe. And there she explains.

OKSANA SHABLIY: (Non-English language spoken).

KAKISSIS: She says, “If our military doesn’t have the resources to defend our territory, then the Russians will take it.” Ukrainian politicians also said that Russia would threaten the rest of Europe if it defeated and destroyed Ukraine.

SHAPIRO: Well, this new Christmas tradition is obviously symbolic in Ukraine. Does this also contribute to the war effort in any way?

KAKISSIS: You know, that’s obviously what Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was hoping for. In his video speech, Zelensky talked a lot about the soldiers who could not join their families at the Christmas table, who died, who are fighting, some of them on the front line since the beginning – since almost of two years. The government even released a video of soldiers singing Christmas carols from the front lines to remind everyone that this war is far from over. But Zelensky also said: Look, it’s crucial that we celebrate Christmas with the West.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY: (Non-English language spoken).

KAKISSIS: He says: “Today, Christmas will unite our voices with millions of other voices like never before. » He is trying to tell Ukrainians that their future is in the West, in the European Union, and that they are fighting for Western democracy. And he says this even if the message rings a little hollow at the moment.

SHAPIRO: NPR’s Joanna Kakissis in Kyiv. Thank you so much.

KAKISSIS: You’re welcome, Ari.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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