Russia is a sprawling country, encompassing diverse territories with their own distinctive cultures, customs and histories. It follows, then, that Russia has some fascinating traditions. Most of these are deeply rooted in Slavic mythology, old-fashioned superstitions and customs that have now become part of common social etiquette. Looking to fit in? Here are some of the most surprising and unique traditions in Russia.
Unique Traditions in Russia
1. New Years Day
Like most countries, New Years Day is a joyous and festive celebration in Russia. It’s your chance to forgive those who have wronged you, pay off your debts and give your house a good tidy. As well as cleaning the house, many Russians will start the year with a clean body and soul too by booking a banya – a Russian sauna – or at the very least take an incredibly hot bath on the 31st December.
The 1976 screwball comedy, The Irony of Fate, tells the bitter-sweet love story of a New Years Eve gone wrong after a bachelor gets drunk at his New Year’s Eve banya. Millions still tune in to watch it every New Years’ Eve.
2. Bottles be gone
It’s bad luck to leave empty alcohol bottles on the table in bars, restaurants and in the house. A centuries-old superstition holds that an empty bottle on the table is an omen of imminent poverty or the future suffering. Some say that evil spirits will take up residence in the bottle. Some even say that it dates back to the early 19th century. During the wars against Napoleon, the Cossacks were allegedly charged by the number of empty bottles on their table. Sneaky Cossacks hid their empty bottles under the table when they finished saving the pennies. Regardless of its origins, it’s still a widely held practice today.
3. Stepping on someone’s toes
If you step on someone’s foot accidentally, don’t be surprised if you receive a light tap on your toes in return. A widely held Russian superstition holds that if you step on someone’s foot, the other person should step on yours to ensure you both avoid future conflict.
Other superstitions include never shaking hands with your gloves on since it can spell the death of a friendship and never gifting someone with a knife since they’ll inevitably have to become your enemy.
4. Bottoms up!
Everyone knows that vodka plays a big role in Russian culture. It’s an important part of the meal, but no Russian would ever dream of vodka without eating a little and often at the same time. This usually takes the form of Zakuski, snacks, such as pickled herring, lard and crackers and pickled cucumbers or stuffed dumplings.
It’s also rude – and bad luck – to put your glass down on the table before you’ve finished it.
5. Grandfather Frost
Santa Claus doesn’t have any status in Russia, but Ded Moroz aka Grandfather Frost has plenty. 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.
6. Wedding bells
Russian weddings usually last for at least two days, but they can last as long as a week. That’s not the only way they differ from American weddings either. As part of the ceremony, tradition holds that the group pays a vykup nevesty, a random, to the bride’s father. There are two parts to the ceremony, and the second part involves a ‘Crowning’. This is where the couple stand on a rose-coloured piece of crown and the priest places crowns on their heads. Once the ceremony has taken place, the couple smashes a couple of crystal glasses and release balloons or doves to symbolize their partnership. Then they’re off for a whirlwind tour of the city, to take photos at all of the city’s landmarks together.
To top it off, as guests arrive at the reception, they drop money onto the floor and the bride gets to clear it all up.
7. Pancake Week
For one week, usually around the end of February, Russian celebrate Maslenitsa – an old Pagan festival. Originally, it was a remembrance of the dead with a burning of the figure of Maslenitsa and blini (pancakes). Since then it’s all become a bit more fun and is now known as ‘butter week’ or ‘pancake week’. The celebration, marked with plenty of blini, sledging, horse sleigh riding and games, marks the start of spring.