Unlike its western counterparts, Christmas in Russia is celebrated on January 7th. Read on to know more about Christmas customs, traditions and celebrations in Russia.

Christmas In Russia

All of us believe that Christmas is always celebrated on December 25th. However, it is not always so. Exactly 13 days after Christmas, the Russians celebrate an 'Orthodox Christmas' on January 7th. Apart from being a joyous festival, the Christmas here, is a religious and solemn one. January 7 was set as the date for Christmas according to the old Julian calendar. It might be of interest that Christmas, and other religious occasions, were in fact, banned in Russia. It wasn't until 1992, that the holiday was openly observed. It is also interesting to note that New Year's was considered a lot more important that Christmas itself. As per Russian customs, all the people in Russia are of Orthodox faith. Hence, the rituals associated with Christmas in Russia, are a tad different from the usual rituals around the world. During the festivities, the Russians follow the Christmas Eve fast and the meal. From 'Kutya' to 'Pagach', Christmas rites and foods in Russia are considered to be extremely important. Read on to know more interesting trivia and information about Christmas in Russia.

Customs, Traditions And Celebrations

Traditions And Rituals
The official festivities of Christmas start on the 31st of December and go on to the 10th of January. People traditionally greet each other by saying 'S Rozhdestvom', meaning 'Merry Christmas. On the Eve of Christmas, people fast until the first star has appeared in the sky. After this the Russians have to eat 'Kutya' or porridge made from wheat or rice, and served with poppy seeds, fruit, berries, nuts and honey. It is said that this porridge was consumed from one bowl and as per Russian customs; the families would throw a spoonful to the ceiling and if got stuck to the ceiling, some people believed that it meant they would have good luck and harvest the following year. The Russian Christmas Eve (Sochelnik) is therefore, considered a very important part of the festivities. During this period, most people do not consume any meats/fish but often dine on vegetables and stick to the 'Lenten' diet such as gherkins, soups, salads and pies, such as 'Borsch' and 'Solyanka'. The supper begins with the 'Lord's Prayer', led by the father of the family. Thanksgiving prayers along with wishes for the good year are also recited at the dinner table.

The head of the family hails the occasion by saying 'Christ is born'. This is followed by the mother of the family, applying honey on the foreheads of the guests in the form of a cross, symbolizing sweet things to come in the following year. A white candle is placed in the center of the table, symbolic of Jesus Christ, 'the light of the world'. Following these customs, the traditional bread 'Pagach', is dipped in honey and then in garlic, symbolizing the sweetness and the bitterness of life. The bread is shared among family and friends at the table, and the 'Holy Supper' is consumed. After the feast, none of the dishes are washed and presents are opened. This is followed by families going to the Church and coming back home in the wee hours of the morning, while singing Christmas carols.

The 'Holy Supper'
Traditionally, the Holy Supper consists of 12 different foods, symbolic of the 12 Apostles. Although there are variations in the food from village to village, the concept of the food essentially remains the same. They are -
  • Mushroom Soup with ‘zaprashka’
  • Baked cod
  • Pagach
  • Chopped garlic
  • Honey
  • Dried fruits
  • Kidney beans and potatoes with garlic
  • Peas
  • Bobal’ki (biscuits with poppy seed and honey)
  • Boiled parsley potatoes
  • Red Wine
  • Fresh fruits
Russian Christmas Characters
Just like all Christmas legends, the story and the origin of Santa Claus goes back to Asia Minor in the city of Myra. St. Nicholas was the Bishop of Myra who was known to be kind-hearted and gave children gifts every year. According to Russian myths, St. Nicholas, during the suppression of the religion, was replaced by 'Ded Moroz' (Grandfather Frost), the Russian spirit of winter, who is believed to have brought gifts to children on New Year's Eve. Ded Moroz is accompanied by Snegurochka, the Snow Maiden, who helps distribute these gifts to children.

The legend of 'Baboushka is also a famed one. It is the story of an old woman who went looking for Baby Jesus after he was born, in the hope of giving him a gift. However, legend has it, that Baboushka never found him, and every year, she would set out to look for Jesus Christ. As a result, she would come across many children, and leave gifts for them, while they were asleep at night. There is no Christmas tree in Russia, but there is a fir tree known as the 'Yolka', which is also known as the New Year's tree.

Although Christmas was never celebrated in Russia, and it was initially banned, people re-invented the New Year's holiday tradition, and decided to begin a Christmas tradition in the beginning of January. Now, during Christmas on January 7th, the Russians look forward to Ded Moroz, decorate the New Year's 'Yolka' and indulge in the festivities with a Christmas Eve fast and a scrumptious, 'Holy Dinner'.