In a decisive bid to decouple Ukraine from its long-held Russian Orthodox influences, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy signed into law on Friday a notable shift in the nation’s religious calendar. The legislation moves the official observance of Christmas Day in Ukraine from January 7, a date observed by the Russian Orthodox Church, to December 25, aligning more with Western Christian traditions.

The move was described in the bill’s explanatory note as an attempt to “abandon the Russian heritage,” which includes the adherence to the Russian Orthodox Church’s calendar. It pointed to Ukrainians’ “relentless, successful struggle for their identity” and the aspiration of all Ukrainians to live according to their traditions and holidays. This decision comes amidst ongoing geopolitical tensions and a 17-month-long conflict with Russia.

A section of the Ukrainian populace had already begun observing Christmas on December 25 last year, signaling a clear break from Russian cultural and religious traditions. This change forms a part of the broader socio-religious shift observed within Ukraine over the last few years.

Additionally, the law adjusts other national holidays. The Day of Ukrainian Statehood will now be observed on July 15 instead of July 28, and the Day of Defenders of Ukraine has moved from October 14 to October 1.

In the broader Orthodox world, the Russian Orthodox Church asserts its sovereignty over Orthodoxy in Ukraine and some other Eastern Orthodox churches continue to adhere to the older Julian calendar, which places Christmas 13 days later than the Gregorian calendar, adopted by most church and secular groups.

The decision to follow the Gregorian calendar, a move made by the Catholic Church in the 16th century for more astronomical precision, has been adopted by Protestant and some Orthodox churches for calculating dates of significant religious observances like Christmas and Easter.

Ukraine’s religious landscape is indeed a complex mosaic. The country is home to two branches of Orthodox Christianity – one, despite its relative autonomy, aligns with the Russian church, while the other, the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, operates independently. Earlier this year, the Orthodox Church of Ukraine announced its shift to the Revised Julian calendar, which observes Christmas on December 25.

The rival Orthodox Church, which is aligned with the Russian Orthodox Church, made it clear, as reported by Russia’s state news agency RIA Novosti, that it will continue to celebrate Christmas on January 7, preserving its alignment with the Russian Orthodox calendar.

Russian President Vladimir Putin reacted to the news by contextualizing it as a centuries-old tension between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches.

Zelenskyy’s announcement of the calendar change came during his visit to the war-ravaged Donetsk region in eastern Ukraine, which Russia has partially annexed. Here, he met with members of Ukraine’s Special Operation Forces, acknowledging their recent successes and contribution to the fight against Russia’s occupation.

During his visit, he addressed the anniversary of a deadly assault on the Olenivka prison in the Russian-occupied part of the region, which claimed the lives of dozens of prisoners of war. While both Ukraine and Russia have accused each other of initiating the attack, a United Nations fact-finding mission was disbanded due to security concerns.

His remarks on the incident were unambiguous, denouncing it as one of Russia’s “most vile and cruel crimes.” Moreover, he commended the Special Operations Forces for their recent achievements, including the liberation of the village of Staromaiorske.

His visit comes at a critical juncture as Ukraine intensifies its counteroffensive against Russian forces, drawing comments from both Western and Russian officials. Putin stated on Saturday that the intensity of Ukrainian attacks has decreased compared to earlier in the week, and claimed that Russian forces were successfully countering the assaults.

In light of this, Zelenskyy’s move to redefine Ukraine’s religious calendar can be seen as more than just a change of dates. It is a symbolic act of cultural defiance against Russia, and a definitive move towards defining Ukraine’s distinct national identity amidst escalating geopolitical tensions.

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