Christmas and New Year Traditions in Russia

Christmas in Russia

In Russia there are followers of many different religions including Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Judaism, but by far the largest and most traditional Russian religion is Orthodox Christianity. Most Christians in Russia belong to the Orthodox Church and it is customary for people to go without meat until after the first church service on January 6th, Christmas Eve. The Church in Russia uses the old Julian calendar and Russia’s Christmas takes place 13 days later than Christmas according to the Gregorian calendar. This is why Christmas is celebrated in Russia on January 7th.

On Christmas Day hymns and carols are sung. People gather in churches that have been decorated with flowers and lights.

The Christmas Eve service starts at 10 p.m. and during the service all the congregation walk around the church carrying candles, just as their grandparents did long ago. The ‘Krestny Khod’ procession is led by the highest-ranking member of the Orthodox Church. The night is usually very cold and snowy, and the priests are wearing their beautiful gold and white vestments, so the candle-lit procession is a wonderful sight!

After the service, people go home to rest a bit and then they can celebrate. Christmas Eve dinner is meatless, so on Christmas Day everybody is ready to enjoy the festive Christmas dinner, which includes a variety of different meats – goose and suckling pig are favourites – delicious!

Child meeting Ded Moroz
A child receiving a gift from Ded Moroz. The tree is a Russian New Year tree. Photo credit: Kasyanova Natalia.

The Russian New Year

There are many holidays in Russia, but the favourite holiday for many Russians is the New Year. Children don’t go to school because of the winter holidays. They buy a New Year tree. This tree, which is called ‘Novogodnaya Yolka’, is decorated like a Christmas tree with glass balls, silver-coloured tinsel strings, small wooden figures and fruits.

Russian Santa, ‘Ded Moroz’, and ‘Snegurochka’, his granddaughter, are the main characters of the New Year holidays. Ded Moroz and Snegurochka live in the Russian town Veliky Ustyug in the north of Russia. In Ded Moroz’s residence, there is the special Ded Moroz Post Office where he reads the letters with kids’ wishes. Traditionally, he wears a red coat and a red hat and mittens, and he has a long white beard.

Ded Moroz and Snegurochka
Ded Moroz and Snegurochka on a pre-1917 Christmas card. Image credit: Wikipedia in Latvian.

Snegurochka is a character from old Russian fairytales. She is a beautiful blonde snow-girl, dressed in a white-blue dress decorated with fur. In one story, she is a daughter of Spring and Frost. She grows up and falls in love with a shepherd named Lel. Her heart becomes hot from love and she melts. In another story, she appears magically in a childless family in an old Russian village. In winter all the children from the village were jumping over the fire. Snegurochka also wanted to play with them and jumped, but she was a snow-girl and she melted.

From the middle of December Ded Moroz and Snegurochka go from house to house to congratulate families on the New Year and give them presents from Ded Moroz’s big red sack.

Russians also follow the tradition of listening to the New Year Speech of the President on the 31st of December (see the YouTube video below). It is an official part of the holiday.

New Year’s Eve for Russians is a magic time. It’s the time to make a wish. When the main clock on the Spassky Tower begins to strike 12, people write their wishes on a piece of paper, then burn it over a candle, put the ashes into a glass of champagne and drink it. If you do this before the clock finishes striking 12, your wish will come true!

Ded Moroz in a children's show in Moscow
Ded Moroz in a children’s show in Moscow. Photo credit: Kasyanova Natalia.

All the family gather at a large table for the New Year dinner and they have a lot of fun and tell jokes. Adults give presents to children and relatives. There is an old Russian saying: “How you greet the New Year is how you will spend the whole year”, so you should be happy on New Year’s Day.

Just after midnight many people go outside to set off fireworks to see in the New Year.

Article contributed by Kasyanova Natalia, December 2011

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