While for most of us the festive season is over, celebrations in Russia have just began. One of the major holidays ahead is the Russian Christmas, which is celebrated according to the Julian calendar – on 7th of January. The majority of the Orthodox churches worldwide (including the Russian Orthodox Church) use the Julian calendar, created under the reign of Julius Caesar in 45 BC and have not adopted the Gregorian calendar, proposed by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582.
For many Russians, Christmas is a family holiday and a religious event but it is not as important as New Year’s Day. After the Russian Revolution of 1917, the Bolsheviks banned Christmas celebrations, and many traditions, such as decorating a Christmas tree and giving presents, turned into New Year’s traditions. After the collapse of the Soviet Union Christmas has returned to be an official holiday in the country. Yet, it began regaining its popularity only recently.
The Russian word for Christmas Eve is sochelnik. On sochelnik there are several long services, including the Royal Hours, Vespers and the Divine Liturgy. Sochelnik also marks the end of a 40-day Lent, which precedes the Christmas Day. During the Lent Orthodox Russians do not eat any meat or fish but on Christmas eve it is again allowed. Once the first star appears in the sky, symbolising the birth of Jesus Christ, the Christmas dinner begins. The festive meal often consists of 12 foods to represent the 12 apostles. Amongst the traditional dishes is Kutia (Кутья), a type of porridge that is traditionally made of wheat and fruit with the addition of poppy seeds and honey. Orthodox Russians would also drink Vzvar (Взвар), a traditional Russian drink made out of stewed fruits. Meanwhile, Russians who do not consider themselves religious would simply have a family dinner. The next day there would also be a Christmas lunch.
Apart from the end of Lent, the Christmas Eve also marks the start of Svyatki. Svyatki or Christmastide is a traditional pagan festival that takes place between 7th and 19th of January. Svyatki is the time for ethnic songs and dancing, carnivals and fortune-telling. Certainly, fortune-telling is the most fun tradition. An old legend says that during Svyatki the spirits and ghosts are present among the living and people can ask them all kinds of questions about the future. Nowadays, the fortune-telling is not taken seriously and practised mostly by young women for fun. They would try to tell fortunes through tea leaves, mirrors, candle wax and such. One of the most famous practise, for example, is melting wax figure shapes in front of the wall or a sheet of white paper and tell fortunes by their shadows. By doing so the unmarried girls can predict the future of their marriages.
As you can see – Russian Christmas is a very different affair to Christmas celebrated by Catholics. Nonetheless it represents just as fun and exciting times. Happy upcoming Russian Christmas!