Displaced by war, this Ukrainian family is celebrating Orthodox Christmas in Australia for the first time

  • Orthodox Christmas is celebrated by congregations in Australia.
  • Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas and the birth of Jesus Christ on January 7th.
  • The difference comes from the decision to follow the Julian calendar instead of the Gregorian calendar.
For the Drobushars family of five in Ukraine, this Christmas in Australia is bittersweet.
Time for family and gathering, there is a vacant chair at the dining table – a nod to the extended family members who are not present.
The compiled meal is “sans meat, eggs and milk,” mother Natalia told SBS News, explaining that adjustments have been made to reflect the current circumstances.

“There should be 12 types of food on the table. We don’t have all kinds. But we’re in a new country and we’re trying to offer the best we can,” she said through a translation provided by her eldest son, Denys. At the age of 16, he has been learning English quickly over the past five months.

Orthodox Christians of various denominations celebrate Christmas and the birth of Jesus Christ on January 7 according to the Julian calendar.
Some Ukrainian Christians celebrate Christmas on December 25 according to the Gregorian calendar, and both January 7 and December 25 are public holidays in Ukraine.
It’s a time of firsts for the Drobushars – their first Christmas since the outbreak of war in Ukraine, their first in a foreign country and their first away from their extended family.
The shadow of the 11-month conflict in their native Ukraine is very present as they engage in rituals to celebrate the birth of Jesus.
The fast of up to 40 days — abstaining from foods like meat, dairy, fish, wine and olive oil — is punctuated with a vigil on Christmas Eve, followed by a feast on Christmas Day.
“It’s a special time of reflection for us,” said Denys.

“It’s a bit sad because all our family isn’t here. But I’m here with mine [immediate] Family – and I’m glad we’re together. We can celebrate together, we can move forward together.”

“The hardest hour for us”

The family fled the western Ukraine city of Lviv in March last year and sought refuge in Poland and the Czech Republic before arriving in Sydney in June.
“The most frightening thing in Lviv was the reality of the war. Our ability to go to work or school every day was completely disrupted. It was a difficult situation,” Denys translated for his mother, Natalia, who heard the sounds of rocket attacks and the heightened alert of security forces.
But settling in a new country from a war zone with limited English skills wasn’t easy.
The mother, father and eldest son, who live in their own residence, all work part-time jobs to build the family income and make ends meet amid the rising cost of living in Sydney.
It was a busy time for the Drobushars, juggling health needs, learning English and recovering from escaping a war zone.
“The first two months were so tough. I just cried for two months. After that, I understand that life goes on and I should do something because I have a life where others don’t,” Ms. Drobushar said.
“We support the soldiers in Ukraine through donations,” she added.

“It’s the hardest time for us, this Christmas. We used to celebrate this day with my mother. Now we celebrate alone [without her] – only we.”

Churchgoers in Australia mark the moment

Congregations of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church across Australia held memorial services as part of the holiday and offered special prayers to honor the lives lost in the conflict.
“Blood is again spilling on our country because of the attacker’s actions,” the Ukrainian Orthodox Church said in a Facebook post.

“But the event of Christ’s birth assures us that light always triumphs over darkness.”

Reverend Paul Naisan (right) stands at a lectern in Saint Zaia Cathedral.

Reverend Paul Naisan (right) delivers a sermon during the Orthodox Christmas service at Saint Zaia Cathedral in Sydney. Source: SBS News

Rev. Paul Naisan is the minister of Saint Zaia Cathedral in Sydney, a branch of the Holy Apostolic Catholic Church of the East, which is headquartered in the Iraqi capital, Baghdad.

He said that although there were no Ukrainians or Russians in his parish, the call for peace was shared by those attending the Orthodox Christmas service.

“We come together to open our hearts to pray for peace. We are aware of the many conflicts in today’s world, including in Ukraine. We pray because there are also many innocent people who are being killed every day.”

Widening gap between Ukrainian and Russian Orthodox communities

Meanwhile, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy He said he doubted the offer was genuine.
Mr Putin’s proposed ceasefire start time of Friday noon Moscow time came and went without disruption to the fighting. Journalists covering the conflict reported artillery fire around Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine from both sides.

The outbreak of war has deepened the rift between the Ukrainian and Russian Orthodox communities.

Ukrainians, including a mother and a toddler, crowd into an air-raid shelter in Lviv, Ukraine.

Ukrainians celebrate Orthodox Christmas Day in a bomb shelter during an air raid in Lviv. Source: AAP / Mykola Tys

In November 2022, the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, headquartered in Kyiv, gave its member churches the choice to celebrate Christmas on December 25th.

About 260 million worldwide celebrate Christmas in January as part of the Orthodox Christian tradition, shaped by Orthodox-majority countries in Eastern Europe and Orthodox communities in Egypt and Ethiopia.

Orthodox traditions have developed differently around the world depending on the branch of the church and local customs.

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