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High Days and Holidays

Holiday Traditions in Russia and Around the World
Text and photos Marina Lukanina

Geseënde Kersfees! Shuvo Naba Barsha! Fröhliche Weihnachten! ¡Feliz Navidad! S Rozhdestvom! Although these phrases look and sound vastly different from each other, they all have the same meaning. This is how people wish each other Merry Christmas in Afrikaans, Bengali, German, Spanish, and Russian, respectively. Even though Christmas is observed at the same time of year throughout the world, each country has its own customs and traditions associated with this magical holiday.

In Germany, for example, the preparation for Weihnachten (Christmas) usually starts on December 6th, also known as Nikolaustag (St. Nicholas Day). St. Nicholas was a 4th-century bishop who had a reputation for giving gifts in secret, and in Germany gifts are given on his day. Celebrations may be held on the evening of December 5th, and children leave their shoes outside their doors for St. Nicholas to fill during the night with treats like fruit, nuts, and special candies and cookies.

New Year Tree in GUM

The centerpiece of the Mexican Christmas celebration is called La Posada (The Inn) a religious procession that reenacts the search for shelter by Joseph and Mary before the birth of Jesus. People go from house to house carrying images of Mary and Joseph looking for shelter. On Christmas Day children take turns trying to break open a decorated clay piñata, releasing a shower of candy.

After New Year’s Day, there is another special celebration yet to come in most of the Latin world: January 6, or Dia de los Reyes [Three Kings’ Day], which commemorates the arrival of the Three Wise Men in Bethlehem, bearing gifts for the infant Jesus.

In Russia and the rest of the Orthodox world, Christmas is celebrated on January 7th, as the Russian Orthodox Church observes its traditional Julian calendar, which is currently 13 days behind the Gregorian calendar used in most countries in the world. (When the Bolshevik government adopted the Gregorian calendar in early 1918, the Russian Orthodox Church rejected the change in protest.) In the six weeks leading up to January 7th, Orthodox Russians fast for four weeks. The Christmas Fast is vegetarian and forbids any parties or large gatherings.

For the less religious, Christmas time is just a long, joyful holiday season. Many Russians start celebrating Christmas on December 25 (together with the Western world), then continue to observe New Year Eve’s with festive parties, enjoy New Year’s Day with their families and, fi nally, celebrate Russian Orthodox Christmas on January 7 followed by Old New Year on January 13th.

Christmas celebration was banned in Russia after the 1917 Revolution along with other religious rituals. Russians, however, were loath to give up their traditions, instead reinventing the New Year’s holiday tradition to include what had previously been associated with Christmas: a decorated tree and a Santalike character called Father Frost, known as Ded Moroz in Russian (see the handy Ded Moroz-Santa Claus comparison chart below). Today, even though religious observance has experienced a resurgence in post-Soviet Russia, New Year’s remains the bigger event.

In a religious Russian family, Christmas Eve dinner is meatless but festive. The most important ingredient is a special porridge called kutya that is made of wheatberries or other grains (symbols of hope and immortality), honey, and poppy seeds (traditionally believed to help ensure happiness and success). The kutya is eaten from a common dish to symbolize unity. Some families used to throw a spoonful of kutya up to the ceiling. According to tradition, if the kutya stuck, there would be a plentiful honey harvest.

Christmas in Russia is associated with a number of other practices. On Christmas Eve, groups of people masquerading as manger animals and go from house to house singing songs called kolyadki. Some kolyadki were pastoral carols to the baby Jesus; others were homage to the ancient solar goddess Kolyada, who was responsible for the lengthening of the days as winter wore on. A great example of a Russian classical literature, Noch’ pered Rozhdestvom [The Night before Christmas] by Nikolai Gogol, offers an excellent introduction to various Slavic Christmas traditions.

Many Russians believe that the way you meet the New Year sets the tone for the whole year ahead. The most common dishes on the holiday table include olivye salad (sour cabbage, pickles, and pickled tomatoes chopped up); a fish salad known as selyodka pod shuboy (literally, “herring in a coat” — that is, under a crust of spices mixed with boiled vegetables and beets). The celebration is impossible without champagne.

New Year’s is commonly perceived as family holiday, with everybody sitting at a nicely set table watching TV. Over the past 30 years or so, Ironiya Sudby [Irony of Fate] has become a classic “must-see” New Year’s film and is typically shown on television. With its innocent, romantic sensibility, this fairy tale-like movie creates just the sort of festive atmosphere a New Year’s holiday is supposed to have. Other popular, New Year’s movies include Karnaval’naya Noch [Carnival Night] and Charodei [The Magicians].

It is customary to “bid farewell” to the previous year, as people take stock of the last 12 months and wish that the coming year treats them kindly. A toast is usually given along these lines. Then, several minutes before the New Year arrives, the sitting president gives an address, shown on all major TV channels against the backdrop of Red Square, the Kremlin, and Spassky Tower, whose clock counts down the time remaining in the old year. As the clock strikes midnight people raise their glasses and make a toast to the New Year, after which the festive dinner continues.

In Moscow, many head to Red Square to celebrate, where there are often concerts and other entertainment. The next couple of days are spent partying, visiting family members, and exchanging gifts. Children usually fi nd their gifts under the New Year’s tree on the morning of January 1st. Holiday celebrations continue up until January 13th, called “Old New Year” in Russia, Ukraine, and some other Orthodox countries.

During pagan times New Year was celebrated on March 22nd — the spring equinox — and was connected with the agricultural cycle. Once Russia became Christian, the Byzantine calendar began to dominate over the old calendar, and the New Year celebration was on September 1st. For a long time there was no consistency in this celebration; some parts of the country still celebrated New Year in spring. Only by the end of the 15th century was New Year standardized and officially fixed on September 1st.

In 1669 Peter the Great decreed that New Year be moved to January 1st and the country observe the Julian calendar, which runs 12-14 days (depending on the century) behind the Gregorian calendar used in most countries of the world. Thus Julian New Year occurs on Gregorian January 12. When the Bolsheviks swapped the Julian calendar for the Western-style Gregorian in 1918, it gave Russians the opportunity to celebrate New Year twice, and this celebratory double-dipping has become a Russian tradition in itself. Old New Year is also a good way to celebrate New Year with friends since December 31st is usually spent with family.

When it comes to holidays, it seems there are different specialties – Americans have their Th anksgiving, Brazilians their Carnaval. Russians are New Year experts. After all, they’ve had twice as much practice as everyone else.

FATHER FROST SANTA CLAUS
Wears an ancient Russian boyar hat. Wears a pointed cap. 
Wears an ancient Russian coat (tulup)
Wears a short red suit trimmed with white.
Has a wide band.
Has a belt with a buckle.
Wears decorated mittens.
Hides his hands in thin white gloves.
Wears Russian long boots (valenki) or morocco boots.
Wears leather boots, usually black or yellow.
Is tall, strong, mighty. Is quite short and fat.
Comes by a sleigh drawn by three horses (troika). 
Travels on a sleigh through the air drawn by eight reindeer.
Lives at his official residence in Ustug the Great
Lives at the North Pole.
Is accompanied by a snow maiden.
Is usually alone.
Enters a house through a door and gives gifts personally or leaves them under a Christmas tree on New Year’s Eve. Enters a house through a chimney and puts gift s into stockings.
Compiled by Larissa Franczek






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