|The forests of Zaparpattia Oblast (aka Transcarpathia)|
Ukraine is a predominantly Orthodox country that also has a substantial Catholic population, which mainly belongs to the Eastern Rite Ukrainian Catholic Church. The country has therefore often been the site of tensions between Eastern (and Latin) Christians in communion with Rome and members of the Orthodox Church - of which there are three main, yet separate, branches in modern-day Ukraine: the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (autonomous church body under the Patriarch of Moscow), the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Kiev Patriarchate), and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church. Of course, the Slavic nation is also a former Communist satellite of the old USSR, which gained its independence in 1991 at which time is also embraced democracy.
It is interesting to note, then, that this year marks the first time that a former Soviet country as well as a predominantly Orthodox one has donated a Christmas tree to the Vatican. This act of generosity by the people of Ukraine is surely a sign of the good relations that have been developing between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches during Pope Benedict XVI's pontificate. It is also an enormously significant act, especially seeing that one of the biggest stumbling blocks on the road to full unity between Eastern and Western Christianity is the tension that exists between Ukrainian Catholics - many of whom were forced to unite with the Orthodox under the Soviet regime, and who subsequently lost their church buildings - and those Ukrainians who belong to the Russian dominated Orthodox Churches.
According to VIS, the Christmas tree itself is a spruce, measuring 30.5m (100ft) in height, whilst its gigantic trunk measures 56cm (22in) in diameter. The tree is reported to weigh nearly 5 tons. It was felled with the help of a helicopter, and originates from Ukraine's south-western region of Transcarpathia. During the next week, it will be decorated with more than 2,500 gold and silver baubles, with a corresponding number of energy-efficient white and yellow lights. Representatives from the Ukrainian Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church are planning to be at the lighting ceremony in two weeks' time.
The other evening saw the lighting of a Christmas tree on Westminster Cathedral's Piazza. This event had been organised by the local councillors who represent Vincent Square Ward on Westminster City's Council and was led by the Lord Mayor of Westminster and members of the Conservative party. Whilst watching this event, I felt it was far too early to be lighting a Christmas tree - a sentiment I think many others share, too. It seems that rituals surrounding the celebration of Our Lord's Nativity are often hijacked or taken out of their timely context by people or organisations who have no real attachment to the Christian faith. It's therefore good to note that the Vatican will be waiting until Late Advent before it switches on its Christmas lights. It is even better to learn that the Holy See will also be using its Christmas tree as a means of furthering one of the greatest of Christian goals - full unity between the Eastern and Western Churches.
[Image: A forest in Zakapattia Oblast, which is also known as Transcarpathia, in the Ukraine; this work is attributed to Petr Adam Dohnálek and is published under a creative commons licence; source: Wikimedia Commons]