Christmas is coming, but are you prepared to celebrate it the Russian way? If not, Prospekt Magazine has you covered with this special guide to a Russian Christmas
It’s all about calendars!
Just to make everything clear, Christmas in Russia is celebrated on 7 January with the official holidays running from 31 December to 10 January. This poses two questions: did Russians ever take part in gift giving or other Christmas celebrations on 25 December? And when did “Merry Christmas” become entangled with two “Happy New Years,” one old and one new?
After the Russian Revolution of 1917, Christmas celebrations were banned by Bolsheviks, which is why many traditions, such as decorating the tree and giving presents, turned into a New Year’s cultural practice. Christmas celebrated on 7 January only became an official holiday in 1991. Today in Russia, it’s still common practice to call the indoor evergreen a New Year’s tree rather than a Christmas tree.
Now, what about the old and the new, New Years?
For that, we have to go back much further to 1582 when Pope Gregory XIII introduced the Gregorian calendar––the official calendar in most western countries. The Gregorian calendar was a reform of the Julian calendar, in that every four years it adds one full day––a leap year.
Still there? This leads up to the Russian part.
In the year of 1582, as the reform of the Gregorian calendar was being adopted in other countries, the Russian Empire continued using the Julian calendar well into the 1900s. Russia only adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1918, and to this day, the Orthodox Church is still using the Julian calendar. This is why Russians celebrate the New Year twice: on 31 December according to the Gregorian calendar––the new, New Year––and on 14 January for the Julian calendar––the old, New Year.
Dear Russians, can I believe in Santa Claus?
If you still want to wait for Santa Claus’s gifts on Christmas Eve, you need the correct festive terminology. Prepare to call the old man with the white beard by another name, but don’t stop believing in his magic!
The Russian Santa Claus is called Ded Moroz, translated into English as Father Frost. He is usually accompanied by his granddaughter and assistant Snegurochka (snow maiden)–– a young girl wearing a white dress.
Before the Slavic version of Santa Claus became a symbol in Russia, the original gift-giver was the country’s Patron, St Nicholas. In 1917, the figure of Ded Moroz was banned but he reappeared under the leader of Soviet Union, Josef Stalin. Despite some differences from his foreign colleague, Ded Moroz and Snegurochka now appear on New Year’s Eve, putting presents under the New Year tree.
From the 90s all the letters are addressed to Velikiy Ustug, a town in the Vologda Oblast, “because everyone knows the address,” told to Prospekt Magazine Kirill, a young entrepreneur living in St Petersburg. Kirill told me he grew up believing in Ded Moroz and after some years he still does.
Ёлка (Yolka). Like in western countries, Russians decorate a Christmas tree, called yolka. The tradition was introduced in the 18 century by Peter the Great. Along with other celebrations, it disappeared in 1917 only to come back with the fall of Soviet Union.
Сочèльник (Christmas Eve). The night of Christmas Eve is called Сочèльник (Sochelnik) that comes from Сочиво, a dish prepared with fruits and boiled wheat that Russians used to eat waiting for midnight.
It is also common during the New Year’s Eve to have dinner with family and celebrate the new year outside. Toasting is really important and every fellow diner has to invent an original toast.
Olivier salad and caviar. Some Russians agree that the traditional meal for New Year’s Eve can vary from family to family and every year it is possible cook something different from the year before. Kirill told me that what should be included in the New Year’s Eve lavishly decked table is caviar and the Olivier salad.
Russian president’s speech. Amidst the festive New Year’s celebrations, it became common switch on the television just ten minutes before midnight for the country to listen to the Russian president’s speech. Some years ago, it was completely secret what the president would say until the moment of broadcast, but with Youtube and Russia’s 11 different time zones, the video is available from the afternoon.
Last but not least, a small vocabulary to make a good impression during this long holidays. Now you should be well-versed on which days to say what!
Рождèственский Сочèльник (Rozhdèstvenskij Socèlnik) – Christmas Eve;
Рождествò Христòво (Rozhdestvò Christòvo) – The birth of Christ;
С Рождеством Христовым! (S Rozhdestvòm Christòvym!) – Merry Christmas;
Нòвый Год (Nòvyj God) – New Year;
С Новым Годом! (S Nòvym Gòdom!) – Happy New Year!
«Стàрый» Нòвый Год («Stàryj» Nòvyj God) – “Old” New Year.
Merry Christmas AND Happy New Year!