KRYVORIVNIA, Ukraine (AP) — Christmas carried more than spiritual weight for many Ukrainians this year as the country newly observed it as a public holiday on Dec. 25 rather than the later date followed in Russia.

The change, enacted in legislation signed by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in July, reflects both Ukrainians’ dismay with the 22-month-old Russian invasion and their assertion of a national identity.

Ukraine is predominantly Orthodox Christian, but the faith is divided between two churches, one of which had long affiliation with the Russian Orthodox Church.

The Orthodox Church of Ukraine, which didn’t recognize the authority of the Russian church and had been regarded as schismatic, was granted full recognition in 2019 by the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Orthodoxy’s top authority.

The Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which was a branch of the Russian church, announced in 2022 after the start of the Russia-Ukraine war that it was breaking ties with Moscow and considered itself autonomous. However, its parishes continue to follow the same liturgical calendar as the Russian church and will observe Christmas on Jan. 7.

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Many Ukrainians embraced the move to celebrate Christmas on Dec. 25 with enthusiasm.

“It’s historical justice,” said Yevhen Konyk, a 44-year-old serviceman who, along with his family, participated in traditional celebrations at an open-air museum in Kyiv. “We need to move forward not only with the world but also with the traditions of our country and overcome the imperial remnants we had.”

In the village of Kryvorivnia, thousands of worshipers, many in traditional garb including the embroidered shirts called vyshyvankas, crowded the streets and streamed to the settlement’s noted elaborate wooden church.

Kryvorivnia, in the Carpathian mountains, is about 800 kilometers (500 miles) west from the frontline, but the war was on the minds of the worshipers. “People didn’t just come to observe the celebration, they came to pray,” said local priest Ivan Rybaruk, who said 16 people from the village of only 1,500 residents have died in the fighting.

“People understand that we live here as safe as it could be. Missiles don’t fly here, bombs don’t explode, but we have lost a lot of guys,” said 27-year-old Olha Mynykh, standing in front of the house of a soldier who was declared missing. “People don’t feel that kind of joy. Of course, they feel joy because of Christmas because it’s impossible not to feel the light of God in the heart. But the scale of the celebration, the nature of the celebration, has obviously changed. It’s not as joyful and full of fun as before.”

Oksana Poviakel, the director of the Pyrohiv Museum of Folk Architecture and Life of Ukraine in Kyiv, where Christmas celebrations took place, said that observing the holiday on the 25th is “another important factor of self-identification.”

“We are separating ourselves from the neighbor who is currently trying to destroy our state, who is killing our people, destroying our homes, and burning our land,” she said.

Asia Landarenko, 63, said she prays every day for her son, who is currently in the military. “The state of war affects everything, including the mood. The real celebration of Christmas will be after the victory, but as the Savior was born, so will be our victory,” she said.

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