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For the first time in more than a century, Ukrainians celebrate Christmas on Dec 25

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

For the first time in more than a century, Ukrainians are celebrating Christmas on this day, December 25. Bells rang in Kyiv this morning to mark the new holiday. Ukraine used to observe the holiday next month, as Russia does. Now Ukrainians believe their future lies in the West. NPR's Joanna Kakissis is celebrating in Kyiv. Hey, Joanna.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.

SHAPIRO: How did this date change happen, and why is it important?

KAKISSIS: So, you know, this change actually happened in the summer a few months ago, when President Volodymyr Zelenskyy signed a law that officially moved the legal Christmas holiday to the 25. But Ukrainians have actually been talking about it for years. It was only after Russia's full-scale invasion that it all became very urgent, that Ukrainians just wanted to break free of all Russian traditions, and that includes using the Julian calendar for holidays. On this calendar, Christmas is on January 7. That's when the Russians celebrate it. The Orthodox Church of Ukraine did hold Christmas services on this date last year, but this year, after the legal holiday was moved, their church followed.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing in non-English language).

KAKISSIS: We're hearing the sound of a Christmas service at Saint Michael's Cathedral. That's the famous gold-domed church in Kyiv, and the church was packed today for the service.

SHAPIRO: But of course, this is an uneasy Christmas for Ukrainians. The counteroffensive has stalled. Russian forces are attacking the east and the south. Ukrainian troops are running out of ammunition because their most important Western partners, the U.S. and the European Union, are holding up crucial military aid. How's everybody feeling about that?

KAKISSIS: Well, Ari, people are very anxious about what's going to come next. Ukrainian lawmakers and soldiers, they've told me, look, if we don't get more ammunition, we're going to lose this war. And the rest of Ukrainians feel that, too. I spoke to a young travel agent and mother, Oksana Shabliy. She was at a Christmas concert that I was also at. She lives in a Kyiv high-rise with her husband and their 7-year-old daughter, and she worries that a Russian missile will hit her apartment if Ukraine runs out of ammunition, like the shells that operate air defenses. You know, those air defenses shoot down Russian missiles and keep people in cities safe. And here she is explaining.

OKSANA SHABLIY: (Non-English language spoken).

KAKISSIS: She's saying, "if our military does not have the resources to defend our land, then the Russians are going to take it over." Ukrainian politicians have also said that Russia will threaten the rest of Europe if it defeats and destroys Ukraine.

SHAPIRO: Well, this new Christmas tradition is obviously symbolic in Ukraine. Does it also help with the war effort in any way?

KAKISSIS: You know, obviously, that's what Ukraine's president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy had hoped. In a video address, Zelenskyy talked a lot about the soldiers who couldn't join their families at the Christmas table, who have died, who are out fighting, some of them on the front lines since the beginning - for almost two years. The government even put out a video of soldiers singing Christmas carols from the front line to remind everyone that this war is far from over. But Zelenskyy also said, look, it's crucial that we're celebrating Christmas with the West.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY: (Non-English language spoken).

KAKISSIS: He's saying, "today, Christmas will unite our voices with millions of other voices like never before." He's trying to tell Ukrainians that their future is in the West, in the European Union, and that they're fighting for Western democracy. And he's saying that even though the message rings a little hollow right now.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Joanna Kakissis in Kyiv. Thank you very much.

KAKISSIS: You're welcome, Ari.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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