Russian Holiday Calendar
The February holiday calendar presents an eclectic mix of religious and secular occasions as if the country is trying to compensate for the lack of sunshine and winter tiredness. Old and new, sacred and commercial, authentic and adopted – all of this is mingled and fused in modern Russian society. This short monthly guide is to help you navigate in the ocean of Russian traditions, festivals and national habits associated whose names we may, or may not recognize.
Text Elena Rubinova
February 14 St. Valentines Day.
In the past few years, young and prosperous Russians have gladly welcomed this newcomer to the Russian calendar which is traditionally marked in the West on February 14. Most young Russians do not really attribute a lot of significance to this date, but use it as an additional chance to present a romantic gift to a partner or somebody they secretly admire. Russia has now caught onto the commercial side. Closer to the date you are sure to notice numerous red hearts, roses and Cupids in the glittering window cases of shops and boutiques across the city.
February 15 Sretenie Gospodne, or Candlemas.
The Russian word Sretenie in translation from the Old Slavonic means “meeting” and “joy”. It is believed that this day was not only the day of the meeting of infant Jesus with our Lord, but also the meeting of Jesus with the world. The significance of this holiday for Russians is reflected even in the names of Moscow streets: one of the oldest central city arteries is called Sretenka, nearby is Sretensky Monastery and a section of the Boulevard Ring is also called Sretensky.
If you stop for an evening liturgy at a Moscow church or cathedral on Candelmas, you will be more than aesthetically rewarded. Heart-felt singing of the church choir and beautifully- lit alters clearly convey even to a non- believer that the service is very sacred. The holiday is practiced both by Catholics and Orthodox, but in Byzantian rites, Candelmas started to be celebrated as an important holiday from the 4th century onwards, and since that time Orthodox tradition regards it as one of the main 12 holidays of the year. When St. Mary and St. Joseph brought Christ to the temple, Simeon embraced the Child and recited the Canticle of Simeon. Because of the verses of the canticle: “a light to the revelation of the Gentiles,” a custom developed in the West by the 11th century of blessing candles. The candles were lit, and a procession took place through the darkened church, to the accompaniment of the congregation and choir singing the Canticle of Simeon. Because of this, the feast also became known as Candlemas.
Candlemas is held 40 days after Christmas. Since Russian Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas on January 7, Sretenie falls on the February 15 in Russia. On the same day, Orthodox Christians also commemorate the existence of a wonderworking icon known as “the Soft ening of Evil Hearts” or “Simeon’s Prophecy.” It depicts the Virgin Mary with her hands upraised in prayer, and seven swords piercing her heart. This is one of the few Orthodox icons depicting Jesus as an infant.
Apart from the religious meaning of Sretenie, Russians also see this date as a meeting of winter and spring, and this has pagan connotations. A lot of omens and superstitions prescribe weather signs to this day connected with the change over from winter to springtime: if the sunset is bright, then the frosty weather is over, if there is no sun on Stretenie’ evening, get ready for a new cold wave before spring comes. A thaw on this day predicts a bountiful wheat harvest, if it snows on Sretenie, this year’s crop is going to be rich. Some omens sound almost like rules to obey: do not hit the ground on Sretenie, wait until the next morning. Take care of your garden and select good grain for spring sowing. Whether you believe such folklore or not; especially in the times of global warming and lack of snowfall even in Russia, it is clear that the winter is on the retreat after this dat
February 24 - March 1 Maslenitsa (Pancake week).
Maslenitsa; like many Russian holidays, is a mixture of two separate cultural influence: pagan and Christian. In Slavic mythology Maslenitsa is a sun festival, celebrating the imminent end of the winter. On the Christian side, Maslenitsa is the last week before the onset of Great Lent. During Maslenitsa week, meat is already forbidden to Orthodox Christians, making it a myasopustnaya nedelya (“meat-empty week”). During Lent, meat, fish, dairy products and eggs are forbidden. Furthermore, Lent also excludes parties, secular music, dancing and other distractions from the spiritual life. Thus, Maslenitsa represents the last chance to enjoy dairy products and partake in social activities that are not appropriate during the more prayerful, sober and introspective Lenten season. The last day of Maslenitsa is called “Forgiveness Sunday,” indicating the desire for God’s forgiveness that lies at the heart of Great Lent. Many Russians; even non-believers observe this tradition and if by chance you hear Russians asking each other to forgive without any obvious reason, do not be surprised.
Long before the Pancake week comes around, you can see posters and advertisements on display in Moscow streets depicting a cheerful looking plump woman in traditional costume with a samovar and troika pulling a sledge with a background of a snowy landscape behind her; or something along these lines. The appearance of these images is a clear sign that the Maslenitsa festival theme has been picked up by the city authorities.
Under communism, the tradition of Maslenitsa never fully died away and was widely observed in families without observing its religious significance. Maslenitsa became an opportunity to prepare pancakes with all sorts of fillings and coverings and to eat them with friends.
Outdoor festivals resumed on a country scale level after Soviet times, when Maslenitsa, like all the other religious holidays, were not officially celebrated. It can be debated whether public celebration represent an artificial restoration of tradition, but the festival certainly adds joy and festival to a usually tense city.
The event usually features traveling choirs dressed in traditional costumes and various folk games including tugof-war, stilt-walking and pillow-fighting. For instance in Kolomenskoe park (Southern Moscow) on a Sunday afternoon you can see a traditional game involving men climbing a 40-50 foot wooden pole in only their underwear! Another highlight involves participants attempting to climb a 7-8 foot snow fort while a group of defenders try to stop them. As the culmination of the celebration, on Sunday evening, Lady Maslenitsa (Pancake doll or Chuchelo) is stripped off and sacrifi ced to the flames of a bonfire. In former times ashes were buried in the snow to symbolize the end of winter and to “fertilize the crops.” But in the past few years, Muscovites have not been blessed with enough snow to carry out this rite; even for kid’s favorite snowball fights you have had to go to the countryside in recent years.
February 23 The Fatherland Defender’s Day.
This is a public holiday and a day off in Russia. But even for school children, no matter what they are told by teachers or what they hear from TV screen, the holiday that until 1993 has been known as Soviet Army Day, has lost the major part of its political meaning. Originally the holiday was to commemorate the first mass draft, on February 23, 1918, into the [Soviet] Red Army, as well as the first combat action against occupying German forces, as well as the very first victories at the fronts of the Civil War.
Soviet Army Day was introduced into the Soviet calendar in 1923 as “Red Army Day,” then “Soviet Army Day” in 1946 and after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the holiday was changed to the current “Defenders of the Fatherland Day.”
Gradually the political signifi cance of this holiday has been played down, and now it is mostly regarded as a “men’s holiday.” From a rather early school age onwards, Russian boys get their own holiday. In theory, all men in Russia are liable for call-up, so they all are celebrities. Why wait? Even 10 year old boys get presents from girls in class just because they are future men. It’s not surprising that this Soviet-time tradition is actually supported up by those who are in their 30’s and 40’s who grew up with this holiday. It flourishes in the offices of Russian companies, banks, at industrial enterprises: almost everywhere men are toasted for and presented some gifts. In the army or among law-enforcement officers, this is a special occasion and tends to be seen as professional holiday as well.
And men in Russian never forget that it is their fleeting chance to gain attention because their festival is closely followed by its all-important female counter-part, Women’s Day, March 8, when women receive flowers, presents and are toasted by men, and God help any males who forget.