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Holiday Traditions of Russia

"Merry Christmas"

A tree with Christmas lights and ornaments in Moscow, Russia.

In Russia, Christmas is celebrated on January 7th because the Russian Orthodox Church uses the Julian calendar for religious celebrations. Because of this, it’s not uncommon for Russians to observe two Christmases and two New Year’s Days—with the first Christmas on December 25th, and the second New Year’s on January 14th. Orthodox Christians also celebrate Advent, the forty day period before Christmas which commemorates the arrival of Jesus into the world (Advent comes from the latin “Adventus”, or arrival). Some will celebrate Advent by adhering to a strict vegan “fast”, while others will abstain from eating altogether.

The official Christmas/New Year holiday season in Russia lasts from December 31st to January 10th. Christmas was banned as a religious holiday under the reign of the Soviet Union in 1929, and as a result New Year’s Day was made into the bigger celebration; if people wanted to celebrate Christmas, they had to do so in secret. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, people were free to celebrate Christmas again, but to this day it still remains the smaller, quieter holiday following the big New Year’s celebrations.

The Russian Santa Claus is Father Frost, known as Ded Moroz in Russian, who brings presents to children, accompanied by his Granddaughter Snegurochka, the snow maiden. Father Frost carries a staff, wears valenki, or felt boots, and rides across Russia in a troika, a vehicle led by three horses.

On Christmas Eve, some people fast until they see the first star in the sky. Then they break their fast with a meatless dinner. One traditional Russian Christmas Eve dish is sochivo or kutya, a porridge made from wheat or rice, served with honey, poppy seeds, fruit, and chopped walnuts. This dish is sometimes eaten from one common bowl to symbolize unity. The Russian word for Christmas Eve “sochelnik” comes from the word “sochivo”. Other popular foods for this meal include beetroot soup or borsch, solyanka, a salty stew, served with individual vegetable pies made with cabbage, potato, or mushroom, sauerkraut, porridge dishes such as buckwheat with fried onions and fried mushrooms, salads, potatoes, dried fruit, beans, and other fruits and vegetables. The meal often consists of 12 dishes, representing the 12 disciples of Jesus. Vzvar is served at the end of the meal, which is a sweet drink made from dried fruit and honey boiled in water. 

After the meal, Orthodox Christians attend a midnight church service, which lasts until the break of day. The meal on Christmas Day breaks the vegan fast with courses like roast pork and goose, pirogi, pelmeni, or meat dumplings, aspic, and stuffed pies. For dessert, Russians enjoy fruit pies, gingerbread and honeybread cookies, called pryaniki, and fresh and dried fruit and nuts. Don’t forget the Russian Christmas cookies called kozulya, made into the shape of a sheep, goat, or deer.

Christmas night begins a two-week period known as Yuletide, or Svyatki; a time for fortune-telling and caroling. Children go caroling around the neighborhood wishing their neighbors a happy new year, who reward them with cookies, sweets, and money. Many carolers wear masks and costumes to disguise themselves so they can prank those who aren’t generous with their rewards. Young girls try reading their fortunes in tea leaves, mirrors, candle wax, and barn noises to name a few. Much of the fortune-telling has to deal with finding out who “Mr. Right” will be.

Holiday Traditions in Russia

Video by Anna Fitz