Russia, Christmas in

Russia, Christmas in

Contemporary Russian Christmas celebrations mix traditional folk and religious customs with remnants of the secular celebrations instituted during the Communist era (1917-91). The traditional Russian Christmas season, called Sviatki, lasted from Christmas to Epiphany, and was marked by feasting, fortune-telling, merrymaking, and religious observance. Since the fall of the Communist government the observance of religious holidays has been increasing. Most Russians who claim a religious affiliation are Orthodox Christians, a branch of the Christian faith known for its ancient and elaborate rituals. Since the Russian Orthodox Church still follows the Julian calendar, Russians celebrate Christmas on January 7 rather than on December 25 (see also Old Christmas Day). Exposure to and adoption of Western Christmas customs has also increased in recent years.

Christmas Customs in Old Russia

As far back as the Middle Ages Russians welcomed Christmas with the singing of kolyadki, or Christmas carols. Carolers worked their way through neighborhoods expecting to be given cookies or other sweets in return for their musical entertainment. Mumming is another old Russian Christmas custom. The famous Russian writer Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) included a passage describing Russian mumming customs in his novel War and Peace. Russian mummers favored dressing up as animals, especially as goats, horses, and bears. Beggar costumes were also popular.

Russian folklore warned that magical spirits and forces waxed powerful during the Christmas season. The Russian people, therefore, developed numerous folk charms to protect their homes, farms, and families from evil spirits or misfortunes. They also searched nature for omens of things to come. Folk tradition suggested that Christmas weather could predict the next year's agricultural prospects. Starry skies meant one could expect a plentiful pea harvest, for example. Many young women worked fortune-telling charms at Christmas time in the hopes of catching a glimpse of their future husbands. Many different spells existed. One encouraged young ladies to throw a boot of theirs into the street on Christmas Eve. The first young man to find the boot would be their future husband. Another custom suggested that unmarried women light a candle in front of a mirror at midnight on Christmas Eve. This charm was supposed to cause the face of their future husband to appear in the mirror.

Other popular Christmas season activities included eating and drinking with family and friends, and decorating Christmas trees. Most people made homemade ornaments out of fruit, nuts, foil, and carved wood. Finally, children in the cities eagerly awaited the Christmas Eve visit of Grandfather Frost, who brought gifts to well-behaved girls and boys.

Feasting and Fasting in Old Russia

Religious observances surrounding Christmas also flourished in Old Russia. These observances began with a fast that started 39 days before Christmas. Those who participated abstained from eating meat, dairy products, and eggs during this period. On December 24 some refrained from eating anything at all until the first star appeared in the sky, signaling the arrival of Christmas Eve. Then they enjoyed a twelve-course dinner. The twelve courses represented the Twelve Days of Christmas. The main course was usually fish instead of meat. Other traditional dishes included a kissel (a kind of berry pudding), borsch (beet soup), and kutya, a dessert made of boiled wheat berries, poppy seeds, and honey. A number of superstitious customs surrounded this dessert. Peasant families used to save a spoonful of kutya to throw at the ceiling. If the grains stuck to the ceiling, it signaled a good harvest to come. Many people also attended a lengthy church service on Christmas Eve.

The Advent fast finally ended on Christmas Day. People celebrated the end of the fast and the arrival of Christmas Day by feasting on roast meats, such as goose, ham, and duck. Roast suckling pig and pig's head were favorite Christmas dishes (see also Boar's Head). Other popular Christmas dinner dishes included piroshki (meatstuffed pastries), pelmeni (beef and pork dumplings), and blini (thin buckwheat pancakes filled with caviar and sour cream). People washed down these heavy dishes with tea and vodka. In addition, many people attended special religious services on Christmas Day. The devout might attend special services held on each of the Twelve Days of Christmas.

Christmas under Communism

The Communist party, which came to power in 1917, opposed religion and religious holidays. The new Soviet government also adopted the Gregorian calendar already predominant in the West. Since the Russian Orthodox Church stuck with the old Julian calendar, this meant that Christmas now fell on January 7 and Epiphany on January 19. Although the Communists did not close all of Russia's churches, government officials often persecuted those who dared to attend religious services. Religious and folk celebrations of Christmas were suppressed and the day was no longer a legal holiday.

New Year's under Communism

The Communists realized, however, that people wanted to continue their wintertime festivities. So they made January 1, New Year's Day, a legal holiday and shifted many non-religious Christmas customs to that day. Under the Communist government Grandfather Frost brought children gifts on New Year's Eve instead of Christmas Eve. It is said that Joseph Stalin reincorporated the decorated tree into these winter celebrations by declaring it to be a New Year's tree instead of a Christmas tree. Likewise, the Christmas dinner became the New Year's dinner.

The government also instituted new holiday customs of its own. Communist officials created a "Festival of Winter" with special performances, parades, and children's activities during the last two weeks of December. On New Year's Day a fabulous children's party took place inside the Kremlin, the walled compound that served as the headquarters of the Soviet government. Extravagant decorations converted this usually formidable location into a child's fantasyland. Fifty thousand tickets were made available for this yearly event, which included the official arrival of Grandfather Frost and his entourage as well as a variety of entertainments provided by musicians, dancers, acrobats, clowns, and actors dressed as fictional characters.

During the Communist period Grandfather Frost was assigned two new companions, the Snow Maiden, and the New Year's boy. While the Snow Maiden was a character from an old Russian folktale, the New Year's boy was a new creation. At public events he was represented by a young boy in a costume with the numbers of the new year blazoned across it (see also Baby).

Ironically, New Year's Day became Russia's favorite holiday during the Communist era, partly because of the popularity of the old Christmas customs that resurfaced on that date and also because the occasion did not lend itself to political propaganda.

Christmas since 1991

Since the fall of the Communist government in 1991 and the reestablishment of the independent nation of Russia, the Russian people have begun to revive the celebration of Christmas. The most noticeable change is the increase in religious observance. In recent years Russian Orthodox churches have noted record attendances at Christmas services. According to a 2003 poll, 27 percent of Russians stated that they planned to go to Christmas services, and 18 percent indicated that they might go. Many fewer people, however - only 12 percent - observed the rigorous pre-Christmas fast.

A Westerner might find a Russian Orthodox Christmas Eve service both tiring and fascinating. The service starts at midnight and lasts until close to dawn. The only seats in the church are lined up against the walls and are generally reserved for the elderly, the sick, and pregnant women. All others stand during the services. The candlelight flickering off the religious paintings that cover the walls, the scent of burning incense, the singing of the choir, and the chanting of the priest and congregation combine to create an atmosphere of religious mystery. Christmas Eve services conducted by the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Alexi II, are now broadcast on Russian television. Some of the old Soviet customs linger, however. Gala New Year's Eve celebrations, which include champagne and fireworks, continue to find favor with the people. Winter festivals still provide Russians with special holiday season entertainments. Grandfather Frost continues to bring presents to children on New Year's Eve. What's more, he still finds New Year's trees there to greet him. Some writers believe that these old Christmas customs will eventually gravitate back to the celebration of the Nativity. For the time being, however, the celebrations that take place on New Year's Eve and Day still constitute the major midwinter festival in Russia. A poll taken in 2003 indicated that 88 percent of Russians approved of giving gifts on New Year's Day, while only 9 percent viewed gift exchanges as an appropriate Christmas custom.

Some Russians have begun to include elements of Western Christmas celebrations in their holiday festivities. In recent years Santa Claus-shaped decorations and treats have appeared in many stores. Moreover, some people have begun to celebrate December 25, a day known as "Catholic Christmas" in Russia.

Further Reading

Associated Press. "Russians Mark Orthodox Christmas." New York Times (January 6, 2003). Christmas in Russia. Chicago: World Book, 1992. Clynes, Tom. Wild Planet. Detroit, Mich.: Visible Ink Press, 1995.
Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2003
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