For the first time there will be not one but four locations for services to mark the Eastern Orthodox Christmas in Ireland.
The large number of Ukrainian refugees has swelled the numbers that belong to the Orthodox tradition, which celebrates Christmas on January 7th, according to the Julian calendar and not the Gregorian calendar that has been in use in the West since the 16th century.
There is only one Russian Orthodox Church in Ireland – the Church of St Peter and St Paul in Harold’s Cross – and many of the faith used to come from all over Ireland to celebrate Christmas there. This year there will also be services in Cork, Waterford and Castlebar to accommodate the extra numbers.
The Christmas vigil began last night at the church in Harold’s Cross. They don’t do the equivalent of short masses in the Orthodox faith. The vigil started at 10am and went on until 2am. It is a long time, but the incantations and smell of frankincense have a hypnotic quality and the hours wile away.
There are three icons of mother and child on the altar between two unlit Christmas trees, which are lit on Christmas day to symbolise the birth of Christ. Visitors kiss the icons and light candles. In the porch of the church women, most of whom have their heads covered, write down the names of those who they wish to pray for.
The choirmaster Tamara Butkovska sings and conducts her multinational choir for the total length of the service. They don’t mind. “It’s normal for us,” she said.
Her choir comes from Ukraine, Russia, Moldova and Poland. The increase of refugees means there are now two liturgies at the church on Sundays instead of one. Butkovska is from Ukraine, but continues to maintain the Russian Orthodox tradition. “It is a terrible situation. Everybody is praying for peace,” she says.
Two-thirds of Ukrainian belong, nominally at least, to the Orthodox faith, but the Russian invasion has made even the date of Christmas a matter of contention.
This year half of all Ukrainians have opted instead for the western date of December 25th rather than the eastern date of January 7th because of the association of the Russian Orthodox Church with Russian president Vladimir Putin’s regime.
Svitlana Falenda, who has been living in Ireland for two and a half years, says she celebrated Christmas day with her sister in Dublin on December 25th. Her sister arrived as a refugee from Ukraine earlier this year.
She had a Zoom call with her family in Ukraine on Christmas Day, according to the western calendar.
“I’m staying in Ireland now and I want to celebrate with Europe on December 25th. Because of the war, Russia wants Ukraine to be part of the Russian-speaking world, and they are using language and culture and religion as a weapon against us,” she said.
“For us we celebrated Christmas with western Europeans because we don’t have common things with Russia any more.”
Both Putin and the Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy have issued highly politicised Christmas messages. Putin has offered a 36 hour truce along the line of control. Zelenskiy pointedly addressed the Ukrainian people on December 25th and has delivered another Christmas message to the Russian people for January 7th urging them to “free themselves of their shameful fear of one man in the Kremlin, at least for 36 hours, at least for Christmas time.”
Fr Mikhail Nasonov, the church rector (equivalent of parish priest), has said his parishioners leave politics at the door when they enter the church.
Russians are a minority among his flock, which includes people from many countries that were once part of the European Union – most notably the Baltic States.
Fr Nasonov acknowledged there were Ukrainians who had swapped dates, but “our Ukrainian parishioners are celebrating with us”.
“We come into the church to pray not to discuss the political issues. We do our best for Ukrainian refugees. We don’t ask them their political opinions. We just try to help them,” he said.
“The war is a great tragedy for all our people for Russian and Ukrainians. Any ceasefire is welcome. Any possibility to stop the bloodshed is good. We pray at every opportunity for peace.”