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Orthodox Christmas takes on new meaning for Ukrainian newcomers in Canada

By Melissa Lopez-Martinez

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    Toronto (CTV Network) — In a year filled with immense loss for many Ukrainians, this Orthodox Christmas has taken on a new meaning for the many who were forced to flee the war-torn country.

Nearing a year since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, those who were able to escape the war aren’t forgetting about their culture and customs as they settle their roots in Canada.

For married couple Alla Panchenko and Veronica Mykoliachuk, who fled Ukraine with their children in 2022, their first Christmas in Canada will be spent in Lethbridge, Alta. alongside a dinner table of traditional, home cooked meals.

The Lethbridge area in southern Alberta has accepted 200 Ukrainians and local community groups have organized several events to welcome the newcomers to their new home.

“I’ve never met such wonderful, amazing, incredible people who just want to share and to make, for us, a new home,” Mykoliachuk told CTV News Calgary.

Newcomer Olesia Chychkevych and her family settled in Winnipeg after fleeing Ukraine in July. By gathering at their local church and cooking traditional Ukrainian dishes, Chychkevych told CTV News Manitoba it wasn’t difficult to keep the celebrations alive even after all the hardships they’ve endured.

“All traditions are not on paper; they are in our hearts,” said Chychkevych. “That is why it is not difficult. In any place where we’ll come, we’ll keep our national traditions alive because it’s very important for us.”

In Ottawa, Ukrainian Canadians gathered at the Ukrainian Orthodox Cathedral Assumption of The Blessed Virgin to pray for the family members that weren’t able to escape the violence.

Inna Hapon, who arrived in Canada on Dec. 21, will be spending her first Christmas without her family, who are still in Ukraine.

“Everyday we are just worried about the situation in Ukraine, checking how it is and how it feels,” Hapon told CTV News Ottawa. “My husband is still there, my parents. For now they couldn’t leave [the] country.”

Orthodox Christians, who are mainly populated in Eastern European nations, follow the Julian calendar and celebrate Christmas on Jan. 7. While it is tradition to observe the holiday in the first week of new year, there has been more support shown to follow the Gregorian calendar date of Dec. 25 since Russia’s invasion.

In February of 2022, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church ended ties with Moscow’s patriarchate and removed the Patriarch Kirill, Russia’s Orthodox Bishop, as their leader in public worship. While the Ukrainian Orthodox Church has moved away from its relations to Russia, some Ukrainian security agencies believe the church may still be loyal to the Moscow patriarch.

Back in Ukraine, the 1,000-year-old Lavra Cathedral in Kyiv welcomed hundreds of people to the pilgrimage site for a historic service. The Ukrainian government took over the Cathedral from the Moscow patriarchate to hold a service in the Ukrainian language for the first time in three decades.

Ukrainian soldiers in uniform sang carols throughout the service and the chief bishop of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, Sergey Petrovich Dumenko delivered a message of hope amid the war.

“Those who held us in captivity could not endure our achievements and our success,” Petrovich said. “The devil’s malice and envy prompted them to make war, but they are sure to be defeated. After all, the truth is on our side.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a 36-hour ceasefire to observe the holiday, however Ukrainian officials have reported shelling attacks in the Dnipropetrovsk and Zaporizhzhia regions on Saturday.

With files from CTV News Calgary, CTV News Winnipeg, CTV News Ottawa and the Associated Press.

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