The most wonderful time of the year has come and gone and for many of us, it’s back to reality the day after New Year’s. Or is it? If you’re Russian or in Russia right now, lucky you because Russian Christmas is just around the corner and if you want to get in on the festivities, there are just some very Russian Christmas things you have to know beforehand.
Although many Russians have started celebrating Christmas on December 25 (twice the amount of alcohol consumption, according to a former Russian teacher), the real Russian Christmas is celebrated on January 7. The reasons for this are political: Since 1700, Russia used the Julian Calendar, which is approximately 13 days behind our Gregorian Calendar. When Lenin’s Bolsheviks adopted the Gregorian Calendar in 1918, the Russian Orthodox Church continued to observe feast days using the old calendar. During the Communist era, religious holidays were officially banned and some Christmas traditions were celebrated at New Year instead. These days, Christmas isn’t so slighted and Russians celebrate it with equal gusto as they would the major New Year Holiday.
If you’re spending Christmas with a Russian family or Russian friends, these are some of the handy Christmas greetings you’re gonna want to throw around:
С рождеством! (S rozhdestvom) – With Christmas! (‘greetings’ or ‘wishes’ is implied)
Счастливого рождества! (Shastlivovo rozhdestva) – Happy Christmas!
Весёлого рождества! (Vesyolovo rozhdestva) – Merry Christmas!
Symbols of Christmas
Since Russia is a cold country, there is no shortage of Christmas trees (ёлка – yolka or ёлочка – yolochka). The trees are decorated with the usual ornaments: baubles, tinsel, lights, and a star on the top.
On New Year’s Eve, children gather around the Christmas tree for presents delivered by Ded Moroz (Дед Мороз – Father Frost, Russia’s equivalent of Father Christmas) who is often accompanied by his granddaughter, the Snow Maiden (Снегурочка – Snegurochka). Traditionally, Ded Moroz carries a large staff and wears a blue coat, though the Soviets tried to turn it red. Interestingly, Ded Moroz was originally a pagan figure who was later transformed by Orthodox influences.
Santa Claus, although fast gaining popularity in the country, still does not hold a candle to the popular St Nicholas of Myra, one of Russia’s most venerated saints, with churches dedicated to him across the country. Known as the Wonderworker, Russians pray to St Nicholas for miracles in times of difficulty, and he remains important all year round, not only at Christmastime.
Despite almost eighty years under the Communist regime in which the Orthodox Church was suppressed, Russia remains a very religious country and the majority of Russians are frequent churchgoers. On Christmas Eve (January 6) there are several long services held in churches, including the Royal Hours and the Vespers.
After dinner, Russians might return to church for midnight service, which can last until the early hours of dawn. If you are attending the midnight service, expect to be very tired by the end. In a Russian Orthodox Church, there are no pews and the congregation is expected to stand for the entirety of the service, since one should sit, let alone slouch in the presence of God. Only the elderly and infirm are allowed to sit in the seats which are found lined up against the walls of the church.
The main Christmas service in Russia is held in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow. The largest religious building in the capital, it was rebuilt in 1995-2000 after the Communists demolished it in 1931. The Patriarch of Moscow and All Rus’ (the head of the Russian Orthodox Church) presides over the service, which is usually attended by the President of the Russian Federation. In recent years, the service has been broadcast live by the major TV channels and can be watched online.
Some Russians fast on Christmas Eve. Those who don’t feast on meaty dishes like pork, chicken and fish. Pies of all sorts are a common sight at the Christmas table. Following the grand dinner Russians eat sochivo (сочиво) or kutia (кутя) –a Russian Christmas pudding consisting of honey and fruit. Kutia is sometimes eaten from a common bowl, symbolising the unity of the family.
What’s Christmas without the celebratory music? Unlike the overplayed commercial Christmas tunes blasted at your local shopping mall, Russian Christmas music takes on many guises and is something else altogether. In church, the psalms are sung by the choir and congregation. Christmas carols known as kolyadki (колядки) are also sung as part of the Christmas festivities. These are songs derived from pagan tradition concerned with warding off evil spirits during the winter. One of the most famous Russian Christmas songs is V lesu rodilas yolochka (В лесу родилась ёлочка – ‘In the forest a Christmas tree was born’), a song that many Russians will remember from their childhood and one you are guaranteed to hear if you’re in Russia.