Why Russia celebrates Orthodox Christmas and Why Is It A Spotlight of 2023?

Orthodox Christmas – and the long-standing rift between the Russian Orthodox Church and other Orthodox groups – has been thrust into the spotlight this year by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s call for a temporary 36-hour ceasefire in Ukraine to allow Orthodox followers to attend Christmas services. Putin’s proposal was swiftly dismissed as “hypocrisy” and “propaganda” by Ukrainian officials, and shelling has continued from both sides.

Orthodox Christians are estimated to number between 200 and 300 million people globally. Majority-Orthodox countries include Russia, Ukraine and Greece, whose churches are part of the Eastern Orthodox branch, which is also followed by the majority of Christians in the Middle East. There are also significant Orthodox communities in Egypt and Ethiopia, most of whom belong to the smaller Oriental Orthodox branch.

Before Russia’s full-scale war on Ukraine, Kyiv had been pushing to establish its own independent Orthodox Church separate from Moscow, and the schism only widened in the wake of Putin’s invasion last year. In October, a branch of Ukraine’s Orthodox church announced it would allow its churches to celebrate Christmas on December 25, rather than January 7. As Orthodox Christmas falls on Saturday, here are answers to some of the key questions.

Why do Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas on January 7?

The dispute within the Christian faith over when to officially recognize the birth of Jesus Christ dates back centuries.
Pope Gregory XIII in 1582 decided to standardize Christian holidays with the introduction of the Gregorian calendar, which put the birth of Jesus Christ on December 25. The Orthodox Church split into its branch of Christianity during the Great Schism of 1054, following years of increasing tensions over religious and political differences.

As a result, Orthodox Christians chose not to adopt Pope Gregory’s new calendar and continued to adhere to the Julian calendar.
A rift between Russian and Ukrainian Orthodox Churches
In recent years, a large part of the Orthodox community in Ukraine has sought to distance itself from Moscow.

The movement was accelerated by the conflict Russia stoked in eastern Ukraine beginning in 2014 and strengthened further in 2018. After Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople – a Greek cleric who is considered the spiritual leader of Eastern Orthodox believers worldwide – endorsed the establishment of an independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine and revoked a centuries-old agreement that granted the Patriarch in Moscow authority over churches in the country.

In January 2019, Bartholomew signed a decree called a “Tomos” that officially granted independence to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine. This severed the church’s centuries-long ties with the Russian church.
Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, which has become closely entwined with the Russian state under Putin, responded by cutting ties with Bartholomew. The emergence of a church independent of Moscow has infuriated Putin, who has made the restoration of the so-called “Russian world” a centrepiece of his foreign policy and has dismissed Ukrainian national identity as illegitimate.

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