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Ukraine is celebrating Christmas on the Western calendar this year

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

From Bethlehem to Kyiv. This is the sound of a Christmas Eve service at Saint Michael's Cathedral in Ukraine's capital. And this is a historic moment because this is the first year that the Orthodox Church of Ukraine is celebrating Christmas on the Western calendar and not with the Russian Orthodox Church, which observes Christmas next month. But the celebration is coming at a time when support from the West is more unsure than ever. NPR's Joanna Kakissis is in Kyiv. Hey, Joanna.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Hey, Scott.

DETROW: So let's start with Christmas. Remind us why Ukraine decided to officially celebrate with the West this year.

KAKISSIS: So, Scott, this is just another example of Ukraine marking another definitive break from Russia, which celebrates on the Julian calendar. The Orthodox Church of Ukraine actually broke away from the Moscow church in 2018, but it continued to hold Christmas services on January 6 and 7. This July, President Zelenskyy moved the legal holiday to the 25, and the churches followed. This afternoon we actually attended a Christmas Eve concert by the Kyiv Chamber Choir in Saint Sophia Cathedral, which is one of the most important Christian shrines in Eastern Europe. Let's listen.

KYIV CHAMBER CHOIR: (Singing in non-English language).

KAKISSIS: And by the way, this very well-known song we're listening to, "Carol Of The Bells," is originally Ukrainian.

DETROW: I don't think I realized that.

KAKISSIS: Yeah.

DETROW: This is a nice celebration. This is yet another step toward the West, but this comes at a really difficult time for Ukrainians. I mean, the counteroffensive has stalled.

KAKISSIS: Yeah.

DETROW: Russians are on the attack. And as we've been talking about for for months here, crucial financial and military aid for Ukraine is held up in both the U.S. and the EU right now. How does all of that feel in Kyiv today?

KAKISSIS: Well, Scott, nearly everyone I've spoken to is very worried. Earlier this week, I talked with Oleksandra Ustinova. She's a member of parliament who deals with arms procurement. And she says the supply of ammunition right now is so low that Ukrainian soldiers are having a really hard time holding positions.

OLEKSANDRA USTINOVA: If we don't have munition coming, Ukraine is going to lose. And the question is whether the EU, U.S. and other countries are OK with Ukraine losing.

KAKISSIS: And she says if Russia defeats Ukraine, it won't stop there. It will just threaten NATO countries on the eastern flank.

DETROW: It's just felt like so many setbacks lately. How are Ukrainians reacting to all of this difficult news?

KAKISSIS: Well, Scott, the mood is far less joyful than it was last year because last year Ukrainians were celebrating winning back some territory. They had their allies firmly by their side, and they had this sense of momentum against the Russians. What I've heard them telling me is they learned to live each day as if it's their last day. They've put up a big Christmas tree in central Kyiv. The ornaments are blue and yellow, the colors of their flag. They're at Christmas markets. They're at skating rinks and concerts. And last night I went to a Christmas concert by Ukraine's most popular hip-hop band, Tanok na Maidani Congo. The band wore Christmas costumes. The trumpet player was an angel. I also saw the three kings. And let's listen to a bit of them.

TANOK NA MAIDANI CONGO: (Singing in non-English language).

KAKISSIS: So three band members have joined Ukraine's armed forces. We spoke to the guitarist, Yaroslav Veryovkin. He is a marine, and he was one of the three kings on stage. He said he's grateful for the West's help. But he says if Ukraine's allies abandon it, he says he and other Ukrainians will not surrender to Russia.

YAROSLAV VERYOVKIN: (Non-English language spoken).

KAKISSIS: "You will understand that we have lost," he says, "only after every single one of us has been killed."

DETROW: And I understand you also spoke with the lead singer's son, who was there as well.

KAKISSIS: Yeah, yeah. I spoke to Nikita Mikhailyuta. He's 13 years old, and Nikita is on Christmas break from school. And so he was helping selling some band merch. I asked Nikita if he had a Christmas wish. And this is what he told me.

NIKITA MIKHAILYUTA: One wish - to end the war, to get our land back, to get war reparations for everything that the Russians have destroyed, to just return to the normal life.

KAKISSIS: And he says he knows how hard that's going to be.

DETROW: Yeah. Joanna Kakissis in Kyiv. Thank you. And I hope you're enjoying this historic Christmas in Ukraine.

KAKISSIS: Thank you so much, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Joanna Kakissis is a foreign correspondent based in Kyiv, Ukraine, where she reports poignant stories of a conflict that has upended millions of lives, affected global energy and food supplies and pitted NATO against Russia.