Combat medic Myroslav Mardarevych bends over a desk in the hall of Saint Sophia’s Cathedral in central Kyiv.
He has just returned from the front and is furiously writing names on small slips of paper. These leaflets are prayer submissions for the church and Myroslav filled three of them with names.
The list of dead people he knows is longer than those who are still alive.
“I have written for the safety and health of my friends, relatives, war fighters, Ukrainian army and all Ukrainians,” he said. “On this Holy Christmas Day, God protect Ukraine and give us strength and determination for victory.
Ukrainians are celebrating their first Christmas since Russiathe invasion in February.
In a historic move, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church has given parishes across the country the choice to mark December 25 with the rest of the Christian world, a break from the Eastern Orthodox tradition of celebrating January 7.
“For some, it’s the possibility of celebrating with the whole world. For some, it’s the possibility of celebrating far from Russia,” explains the priest of Hagia Sophia, Father Georgii Kovalenko.
“Christmas has a very literal meaning for Ukrainians today. The holy family did not find a home – they were homeless. Just like the Ukrainians who lost their homes, the holy family and Christ were refugees.”
In the middle of Father Georgii’s sermon, the air raid sirens went off. Instead of Christmas bells, the loud horn and directions to take cover were loud and clear.
But instead of rushing to a shelter, the service continued as more arrived.
The room filled with people in deep prayer, reminded in their worship that their country is still at war – a conflict that Pope Francis described as “senseless” in his Address of Christmas 2022 to the world.
A “bitter taste” at Christmas dinner
In a dark speech on Christmas EvePresident Zelensky stood in his trademark military green.
“Unfortunately, this year all the holidays taste bittersweet to us and we may feel the traditional spirit of Christmas differently,” he said.
“Dinner at the family table may not be so tasty and warm. There may be empty chairs around, and our homes and streets may not be so bright.
“Wherever we are, we will be together today. And together we will look up at the evening sky and together we will remember the morning of February 24. We will remember how far we have come.”
While millions of Ukrainians remain separated from loved ones, some families have managed to reunite.
Parliamentarian and human rights defender Lesia Vasalenko is back with her young children for Christmas.
Her work left her vulnerable to assassination and she sent her family to the UK out of fear for their safety.
Suffering from bouts of homesickness, she brought her three children home to celebrate with her family in Korostyshiv.
They see their grandparents for the first time since the early days of the war.
“Each of them needs their mother in one way or another. It leaves scars that will show up for years to come,” Lesia explains.
“That fatigue is what Russia is good at. And we have no right — no moral right — in Ukraine or anywhere else to tire of it.”