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01.06.2023 Przemysl, Poland. Two Orthodox priests say grace with a group of around 100 Ukrainian refugees before a traditional Orthodox Christmas Eve dinner at Ukrainian House in Przemysl, Poland, on Friday.Anna Liminowicz/The Globe and Mail

Yana Avramova tried her best to get into the Christmas spirit on Friday even as tears welled up in her eyes as she thought about her husband in Odesa.

Like millions of Ukrainians, Ms. Avramova belongs to the Eastern Orthodox Church and she has always celebrated Christmas on Jan. 7, according to the Julian calendar. Friday should have been one of the happiest days of the year for her, filled with Christmas Eve traditions and the fellowship of loved ones.

Instead, she spent the evening in Ukrainian House, a cultural centre and refugee shelter in Przemysl, just across the Ukrainian border in Poland. She and her two teenaged children left the family’s home in Odesa this week after Russian troops intensified their bombing campaign. Her husband had to stay behind in accordance with Ukraine’s regulation that bans adult men from leaving.

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Yana Avramova, middle, and her two teenage children, who all recently arrived from Odesa, join other refugees at Ukrainian House in Przemysl, Poland, on Friday for a traditional Orthodox Christmas Eve dinner.Anna Liminowicz/The Globe and Mail

Volunteers at the centre did their best to organize a Christmas Eve celebration. They decorated the auditorium with two Christmas trees, paper snowflakes and blinking lights. They cooked a traditional Christmas Eve meal – complete with 12 dishes including pierogis, cabbage rolls and a sweet grain pudding called kutia – and invited around 100 refugees to join in. They sang Christmas songs and had two priests offer blessings.

But the more everyone tried to create a festive atmosphere, the more Ms. Avramova thought about the life and home she’d been forced to give up.

“It’s hard,” she said as she sat with a group of refugees at a long table in the auditorium. She appreciated the gesture, but cried softly as she looked at one of the Christmas trees. She can stay at the shelter for only a couple of days and she has no plans beyond going to Germany to find work. “It’s hard when you don’t know anybody or know what you are doing,” she said.

The Orthodox Christmas season has brought little joy to most Ukrainians this year as the war with Russia drags into its 11th month. Refugees continue to arrive in Przemysl by the hundreds every day and the Ukrainian House shelter regularly houses up to 50 people a night.

In Ukraine, a 36-hour Christmas ceasefire announced by Russian President Vladimir Putin earlier this week was scorned by Ukrainian officials who said on Friday that the fighting hadn’t stopped. Air raid sirens sounded across much of the country and Luhansk’s governor, Serhiy Haidai, said Russian troops opened fire 14 times in the region.

Many Ukrainians have switched their Christmas celebrations to Dec. 25 as a protest against Russia, where the Russian Orthodox Church is the predominant religion. The ceasefire announcement came at the behest of Patriarch Kirill I, who heads the Russian church and is a close ally of Mr. Putin.

Ukraine’s two Orthodox churches have already cut their ties to the Moscow Patriarchate and in November one branch – the Orthodox Church of Ukraine – announced that its 7,000 congregations could celebrate Christmas on Dec. 25 in accordance with the Gregorian calendar.

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Above, Orthodox priest Jerzy Mokrauz breaks wishing bread with a woman. A group of around 100 Ukrainian refugees gathered Friday at Ukrainian House in Przemysl, Poland, for a traditional Orthodox Christmas Eve dinner.Anna Liminowicz/The Globe and Mail

Anna Koval got her whole family in Lviv to change dates for the first time this year. “I was always telling people in Ukraine that we should do this and not be one of these post-Soviet-Union countries that stay on the old calendar, which is not, not right for me,” she said as she sat outside the Przemysl train station on Friday.

Ms. Koval, 26, had just arrived in Poland from Ukraine and she planned to go to Barcelona. She’d stayed in Lviv as long as she could but power cuts and winter weather had taken their toll.

Dropping Jan. 7 as Christmas was an important signal of Ukraine’s independence and freedom, she added. Just like not speaking Russian or listening to Russian singers, “it’s important for us to understand and that you should stand away from everything that happened in the past and how the propaganda worked on us for the whole time,” she said. “It’s all about not just this holiday, it’s about the whole culture, is it our culture?”

Tatiana Nakonieczna, a volunteer at Ukrainian House, said the organization debated whether to hold the Christmas Eve dinner on Friday. She and her family celebrated Christmas on Dec. 25 with a group of Ukrainian refugees she has been supporting. However, her Orthodox church in Przemysl has stuck with Jan. 7. “We are actually quite confused,” she said Friday morning as she helped organize the dinner. “We don’t know how to act.”

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Tatiana Nakonieczna, left, a volunteer at Ukrainian House in Przemysl, Poland, greets a refugee from Ukraine at a traditional Orthodox Christmas Eve dinner the centre organized on Friday.Anna Liminowicz/The Globe and Mail

The centre decided to go ahead with the Christmas Eve event out of respect for tradition and to provide a social gathering for the dozens of refugees who recently arrived at the shelter. “When I talk to my colleagues and people from our community, we would rather stay with January Christmas, because we are used to that,” Ms. Nakonieczna said. However, she added that she wasn’t sure whether Jan. 7 will be honoured next year.

The conflicting Christmas dates were on full display across Poland on Friday. While the Orthodox faithful prepared for Christmas Eve, Roman Catholic Poles celebrated a national holiday for Epiphany, or Three Kings Day, with colourful parades that marked the end of the Christmas season.

Neither date mattered much to Svitlana Goroliyeva on Friday as she joined the Christmas Eve festivities at Ukrainian House. She wore a bright green sweater and sang as loudly as she could even though her thoughts were on her two children in Ukraine.

Ms. Goroliyeva and her husband, Olekh, who is disabled, fled their home near Odesa this week because of Russian missile attacks. Their children – ages 13 and 29 – didn’t have proper passports and had to stay behind until the documents could be finalized. “We arrived here yesterday,” Ms. Goroliyeva said. “I spent the whole day crying.”

Despite the pain of separation, Ms. Goroliyeva said it felt good to be with a community of Orthodox Ukrainians on Christmas Eve. “It’s an important holiday,” she said. “I couldn’t imagine not celebrating it.”