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Why Christmas in Ukraine may be celebrated on Dec. 25 or Jan. 7

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

In Ukraine, the date on which to celebrate Christmas is vigorously debated. Some prefer December 25, but others celebrate it on January 7, a tradition closely associated with Russia and the Eastern Orthodox Church. With the ongoing war, the question has taken on new meaning, as NPR's Tim Mak reports from Ukraine.

TIM MAK, BYLINE: It's a foggy day, with snow on the ground outside the Kyiv Pechersk Lavra, a historic Eastern Orthodox Christian site in Ukraine's capital city founded as a cave monastery in the 11th century. The person waiting for us is Father Mykola Danylevich, a spokesperson for one of the Ukrainian Orthodox churches, which has historically had deep ties to Moscow.

MYKOLA DANYLEVICH: What country you're from?

MAK: America.

DANYLEVICH: From America. Yes. Yes. We will go.

MAK: The power is out in the building, the result of recent Russian strikes on energy infrastructure. In a dark room, he explains. The dispute over dates is really a dispute over calendars. Hundreds of years ago, when the West was switching from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar, the Orthodox Church decided to stick with the old calendar when it came to the celebration of Christmas.

DANYLEVICH: (Through interpreter) We actually celebrate the 25 of December just by the Julian calendar. And by the new calendar, it happens to be on the 7 of January.

MAK: Danylevich says that the debate over which day to celebrate Christmas has intensified since the Russian occupation of Crimea in 2014. The Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine this year has further inflamed these passions.

DANYLEVICH: (Through interpreter) You know, in Ukraine now, everything is emotional. Regardless of topic, it is emotional.

MAK: Sebastian Dmytrukh, a Catholic monk, met us at a religious museum in Lviv, Ukraine, where he's the director and the leader of a local congregation.

SEBASTIAN DMYTRUKH: (Through interpreter) I ask probably four weeks ago, when do we want to celebrate? The whole church answered they want to celebrate 25 of December.

MAK: They felt this way despite the inconveniences it could entail.

DMYTRUKH: (Through interpreter) So at this time of war, people are even more open to speaking out. They're saying, we don't want to celebrate with the Russians.

MAK: Dmytrukh says he's been traveling throughout western Ukraine over the past few days, and he's surprised about how frequently the question has been brought up.

DMYTRUKH: (Through interpreter) people, even people from the small villages, want it, and they want it desperately.

MAK: Part of the division is generational and comes from the ties of long-standing tradition.

OLEKSANDRA KYRYCHUK: (Through interpreter) In my home, we always had this really vivid Christmas celebration.

MAK: Sixty-year-old Oleksandra Kyrychuk is the assistant director of the Museum of Religion in Lviv. She has fond memories of Christmas dishes like kutya, a grain dish with gravy, and pampukh, these sweet Ukrainian pastries.

KYRYCHUK: (Through interpreter) As a religious scholar, as a scientist, I understand that we need to celebrate on the 25 of December. But as an individual that is tied to those traditions that have been in my family, I won't have the sacredness on the 25. But in January, it's something divine, mystical.

MAK: Dariia Kostiuk is an 18-year-old law student who, like Kyrychuk, is a Greek Catholic, but she doesn't share the same view on Christmas dates. She strongly supports celebrating on December 25, and she says many people her age would agree with her.

DARIIA KOSTIUK: I don't want to have anything in common with Russia. So that's why I want to celebrate with Europe and whole world.

MAK: Still, she said, regardless of which date people choose to celebrate, she had one Christmas wish - peace on the whole Earth and, in particular, peace in Ukraine.

Tim Mak, NPR News, Kyiv. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tim Mak is NPR's Washington Investigative Correspondent, focused on political enterprise journalism.