Christmas is a popular time to visit Russia, when its onion-shaped domes are capped with snow and its cities sit under a canopy of twinkling lights. But while it’s undeniably pretty, there’s probably a thing or two you don’t know about this holiday. From 1929 until the fall of the Soviet Union, Christmas was banned as a religious holiday. All of those Christmas traditions rebranded as New Year’s traditions including Christmas trees, which were banned in 1935. Today, New Year is a much more important holiday in the calendar. But despite this legacy, Russia is still home to plenty of fascinating traditions, superstitions and customs come Christmastime. Here are a few Christmas traditions in Russia to get you started.
Russian Christmas Traditions
1. It takes place in January
In Russia, Christmas is celebrated on January 7th every year. The Russian Orthodox Church adheres to the Julian calendar which is currently 13 days behind the Gregorian calendar, used by much of the west. Christians in Russia account for 75 % of its population. That means that if you’re visiting Russia in early December, you’re unlikely to see any Christmas decorations or festive trees until the end of your trip.
2. Father Frost is a little different to Santa Clause…
Ded Moroz or Father Frost is the Russian equivalent of Santa Clause, with roots in Slavic mythology. He brings gifts to well-behaved children on 31 December. Grandfather Frost wears a long blue or red fur coat, a matching hat, felt boots and carries gifts in a big sack on his back. So far, so Santa. However, unlike Santa, Grandfather Frost doesn’t rely on reindeer to get him around, since he can just ski, hike or hop on his troika carriage (he’s pretty fit). He also carries a magical staff that he uses to freeze everything around him. And, unlike Santa, he doesn’t creep around in the night, he’s happy to show his face and stop by at a holiday party to give out the presents.
He’s also joined by his granddaughter, Snegurichka, the Snow Maiden. She’s never too far away, usually wearing a blue and white fur coat with a long blond braid. She supposedly lives in Kostroma, on the Volga, while Grandfather Frost lives out near Veliky Ustyug, in the Vologda Region
3. The Nativity Fast
According to Russian Orthodox tradition, Christmas is preceded by a 40-day fast excluding meat and dairy products. Strict Christians will observe the fast right up until the first star appears on Christmas Eve – which symbolizes the appearance of the Star of Bethlehem that led the three wise men to Jesus’ home.
4. Christmas Eve
Russians break this fast with a festive feast on Christmas Eve, called Сочельник (sachyelnik). Families will sit together and tuck into a delicious meal hinged around grains, seeds, nuts, honey and dried fruit, called ‘sochivo’ or ‘kutia’. Traditionally, families would throw a spoonful of kutia up onto the ceiling, and if it stuck that symbolized good luck and a good harvest. Unsurprisingly, that’s not a very common custom today.
You’ll also find pickled gherkins, mushrooms, sauerkraut, and pickled apples on the menu too. Other traditional dishes include meat, mushroom and vegetable-filled pies. The meal often consists of 12 dishes, representing the 12 disciples of Jesus. There’s also a special Christmas Eve drink called сбитень (ZBEEtyn’), made with spices and honey.
5. Christmas Dinner
In Russia, Christmas Dinner usually features roast pork or goose, pirog and pelmeni (two delicious varieties of meat dumplings) and fruit pies for dessert. Kozulya, Christmas cookies shaped like sheep, goat and deer, top off the whole experience.
6. Svyatki – Russian Christmastide
Svyatki follows Christmas – a two week period that lasts until Epiphany on January 19. This old pagan tradition of Russian feasting comes from the word svyatoy, which means ‘holy’, marking the period between the birth and baptism of Christ. There’s nothing too holy about this period though. It’s more closely associated with old pagan traditions of carolling and fortune-telling (more on that later). Some mark epiphany by diving into icy rivers and lakes. Others don scary masks and run around the village terrifying people. Each to their own.
7. How about some fortune-telling?
The Russian Orthodox Church doesn’t condone this one, but it’s one of Russia’s oldest traditions. Once upon a time, young and unmarried women would perform fortune-telling at a banya, a traditional Russian bathhouse, but today it involves the whole family.
There are dozens of regional and localized variations involving tea leaf reading, tarot cars and coffee grounds divination. In some parts of the country, you’ll fill a bowl with rice, ask a question and if you pull out an even number of rice grains, your wish will come true.
Others will put different objects in different cups and take it in turns to choose a cup. Different objects represent different futures, for example, a coin means wealth, an onion means tears, bread means abundance, and so on.