Staunton, January 7 – Today, unlike Western Christians and most of the Orthodox world, Orthodox Christians in both the Russian Federation and Ukraine celebrate Christmas, a reflection of the fact that the Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate continue to follow the Julian rather than the Gregorian calendar which in this century is 13 days behind the latter.
On Western Christmas last month, Aleksandr Turchinov, the secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council and himself a former pastor of a Protestant church, triggered a discussion about the possibility of shifting the Christian holiday from January to December.
“Perhaps,” he wrote on his Facebook page, “the time has come for Ukraine to shift the celebration of Christian to December 25 together with the majority of civilized countries. But for a transitional period,” he suggested, both days could be celebrated to allow people to get used to the idea.
Turchinov’s words revived a discussion that has been going on in the Orthodox church in both Ukraine and Russia for decades, a discussion that is extremely sensitive because any shift one of the hierarchies might propose could cost it support from parishioners if the experience of the 1920s is any guide.
Consequently, Orthodox leaders in Ukraine have been cautious. Patriarch Filaret of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyivan Patriarchate, has pointed out that making the change has been discussed among the hierarchy but the people remain attached to the old calendar (eadaily.com/news/2016/01/07/filaret-ne-podderzhal-ideyu-sekretarya-snbo-ukrainy-o-perenose-rozhdestva).
“In the 1920s,” he says, “the Russian church shifted to the new style, but the people did not accept this. There were no people in the churches on December 25 but on January 7 [in fact January 6 in the 20th century], the churches were full. What does this mean? When the church saw that the people didn’t accept this, it then backed off.”
Only if popular attitudes change, the Ukrainian patriarch says, can the church change the calendar.
The leadership of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church is more open to a change. “We are considering the issue of the transfer to the Gregorian calendar. We must strive to celebrate Christas and other holidays” according to that more accurate calendar, according to Svyatoslav Shevchuk, the head of that church.
That is what “not only Catholics but the majority of Orthodox churches of the world do,” he says, but he adds that he “cannot say that this is a matter of the immediate future” because “this issue has not so much a dogmatic as a disciplinary meaning.” Were such changes to be introduced from the stop, they could spark divisions or even “the splitting of the church.”
Shevchuk argues that “problems with the transition to the Gregorian calendar in the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church will not arise if this takes place at the same time as in the Orthodox churches of Ukraine.”