Combat medic Myroslav Mardarevych is hunched over a desk in the foyer of St Sophia Cathedral in central Kyiv.
He has just come from the frontline and is furiously writing down names on small pieces of paper. These slips are prayer submissions for the church and Myroslav has filled out three of them with names.
The list of people he knows who have died is longer than those still alive.
“I wrote for the safety and health of my friends, relatives, fighters of the Ukrainian army and all Ukrainians,” he says. “On this holy Christmas day, God protect Ukraine and give us strength and resolve for victory.”
Ukrainians are celebrating their first Christmas since Russia‘s invasion in February.
In a historic move, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church has given parishes across the country the choice to mark 25 December with the rest of the Christian world, a break from the eastern Orthodox tradition to celebrate on 7 January.
“For some it is the possibility to celebrate with the whole world. For some it is the possibility to celebrate away from Russia,” says St Sophia’s priest, Father Georgii Kovalenko.
“Christmas has a very literal meaning for Ukrainians today. The holy family didn’t find a place to stay – they were homeless. The same as Ukranians that lost their homes, the holy family and Christ were refugees.”
Halfway through Father Georgii’s sermon, the air raid sirens went off. Instead of Christmas bells, the loud horn and instructions to take shelter were loud and clear.
But instead of rushing to a shelter, the service continued as more arrived.
The room filled with people deep in prayer, reminded in their worship that their country is still at war – a conflict that Pope Francis called “senseless” in his 2022 Christmas address to the world.
A ‘bitter taste’ at Christmas dinner
In a sombre speech on Christmas Eve, President Zelensky stood in his trademark military green.
“Unfortunately, this year all holidays have a bitter taste for us and we can 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 it and our homes and streets may not be so bright.
“Wherever we are we will be together today. And together we will look into the evening sky and together we will remember the morning of 24 February. We will remember how far we have come.”
While millions of Ukrainians remain separated from their loved ones, some families have managed to come together.
Parliamentarian and human rights defender Lesia Vasalenko is back with her young children for Christmas.
Her work made her vulnerable to assassination, and she sent her family to the UK out of fear for their safety.
Suffering from bouts of homesickness, she has brought her three children home to celebrate with family in Korostyshiv.
They are seeing their grandparents for the first time since the early days of the war.
“Each one of them needs their mother in one way or another. It’s leaving scars which will become apparent in years to come,” says Lesia.
“This fatigue is what Russia is good at playing at. And we have no right – no moral right – in Ukraine or anywhere else to get tired of this.”
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