January 29, 2016

What a difference a date makes


“We should live according to the European, world calendar, not the Muscovite one.” (Ukraine)

“It is not good to leave tradition. But, in order to separate ourselves from the Muscovites, we can try.” (Ukraine)

“I treasure January 6 and 7. For me it is a true Christmas with none of the commercialism.” (U.S.A.)

The issue had been dormant since the early 1960s, when many Ukrainian Catholic parishes in North America voted to adopt the Gregorian calendar instead of the Julian, which had been in practice for centuries in Ukraine and here. Then, all of a sudden, truly out of the blue this Christmas, discussion in Ukraine turned to having Ukrainian Churches celebrate Christmas according to the Gregorian calendar, on December 25. The Internet buzzed with statements (like the ones above) from politicians, religious leaders, prominent cultural activists and average citizens about the need for a change.

This was to be change not because of any religious, liturgical or ecclesiastical reason, but a political and patriotic one. A few times I had to double-check the authors of messages supporting the change because these were the most patriotic and religious Ukrainians there are – and they were supporting the switch.

The world has run according to the Gregorian calendar since 1582, that is, everywhere except parts of the Eastern Christian liturgical world. It is not the matter of the calendar itself – there is no disagreement today about the irrelevance of the Julian calendar, which is 13 days behind. It is a revulsion to anything Russian, especially the Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate in Ukraine. The fact that the Russian Church is younger does not matter in this logic. (Now if only the revulsion to the Russian language were as strong.)

There is a difference between the issue in Ukraine and what had been a non-issue for Ukrainians in North America up to now. The Orthodox Church celebrates according to the old calendar, while the Ukrainian Catholics have gotten used to the two calendars. In a way, it is a convenience to be able to celebrate twice, and in another way, it is cheating, because whatever religious fasting (Pylypivka) had been part of the protocol is either not practiced or is confusing. One point Ukrainians in Ukraine make is that there is so much merrymaking and non-fasting on New Year’s Eve, December 31, and then people revert to fasting before Sviat Vechir (Christmas Eve) on January 6. Malanka, the “staryi novyi rik” (old-calendar New Year), follows on January 13-14th.

When the change in calendars came about in the early 1960s here, it was a matter of patriotism to remain on the old calendar, being together with Ukraine and family on Sviat Vechir. Now, in Ukraine, it is a matter of much more serious patriotism – not being associated with anything Russian, even the date Christmas is celebrated in Russia.

The first public announcement about the idea came from Oleksandr Turchynov, the secretary of the National Security and Defense Council (NSDC) of Ukraine. In his Facebook greeting to Ukrainians, he proposed to move the celebration of Christmas from January 7 to December 25. The Baptist pastor pointed out that December 25 is celebrated by “most civilized countries” in the world. “Today no one country lives according to the Julian calendar. The Julian calendar remained fixed to determine the calendar of holy day dates for only some Orthodox Churches, particularly in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus.”

Patriarch Sviatoslav of the Ukrainian Catholic Church said that the church is looking into the question of celebrating Christmas according to the Gregorian calendar but, as of now, there is no answer for the near future. “We should aim towards the celebration of Christmas and other immovable feasts on the more accurate Gregorian calendar, as do not only Catholics, but also the majority of the Orthodox in the world right now. This issue is not so much dogmatic, as it is disciplinary.” He noted that it is known from history that any changes, especially changes in a calendar, have provoked divisions and splits.

The patriarch also stated that this is an issue for both clergy and laity, that the whole church body should discuss this. “In addition, this idea must have an ecumenical character… [to have this come about] with our Orthodox brethren. This will then be positively welcomed by all of Ukraine and will not cause new obstacles for the renewal of the unity of one Pomisna [Particular] Kyivan Church.”

Back in 2006, Patriarch Lubomyr Husar had said “for us in Ukraine, to speak about the calendar change can lead to another split, which we do not really need… this change could have many harsh results.” In 2015 in a radio interview, now patriarch emeritus, he said, “I, myself, am not attached to a particular date”; in another statement, he noted, “I do not see difficulties in celebrating Christmas together, on December 25.”

Patriarchate, a Greek-Catholic analytical publication, is opposed to a change, because “for centuries our ancestors… strongly held on to the traditional old calendar in church life.” Father Yevstratiy Zoria, the head of the media bureau for the Kyiv Patriarchate, stated that “when the Ukrainian Church is already divided, to give an additional reason [for division] is not wise, not prudent.”

As of now, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Kyiv Patriarchate has no intention of changing the calendar it uses. And there is no point in getting the opinion of the Moscow Patriarchate in Ukraine, especially because so many parishes are officially leaving it to join the Kyiv Patriarchate. The last straw for many was the refusal of their priests to hold services for Ukrainian soldiers. Another major turn-off was the image of the Moscow Patriarchate bishops and others sitting in the Verkhovna Rada, refusing to rise for a moment of silence for the soldiers killed in the war with Russia.

Neither in the early 1960s nor now is religion the issue. The Russian invasion and war started this. But the issue will be settled in Ukraine, not in North America. We kept to the old calendar to symbolically be with our families in Ukraine. The people who changed to the new calendar still practice all our precious traditions on December 24. If there is a change eventually, in western Canada we will have a problem of losing our “Ukrainian Christmas” in the Canadian milieu. Will the media still be interested in writing about us, interviewing on television? Will the city lights stay on past January 7? Or will Ukrainians just blend into the general big Christmas, all the while eschewing Santa Claus and shopping until we drop? After all, our Christmas has such a different emphasis.

In our hearts, no matter when, it will be Ukrainian Christmas, especially in terms of Sviat Vechir, “koliada” and our unity with Ukrainians around the world.