Christmas Celebration in Russia (Russian Christmas Traditions)
The most magical time, the Christmas holidays, is almost here, and it seems like the whole world is busy with preparations. As always, the biggest country on the planet is much more excited not about Christmas but about New Year's Day and the festivities it will bring. Looking at all that, one might start to wonder - do Russians celebrate Christmas at all?
Christmas Day in Russia
The official Russian Christmas date is January 7, and maybe that's one of the secrets why people are so much more excited about the New Year - it's just the first in line. Strictly speaking, for those who genuinely celebrate the birth of Christ, December 31 is not much of a holiday, as it happens during the Nativity Fast, a period of abstinence when no eating and drinking sprees are allowed.
As you can already see, Russian Orthodox Christmas is a celebration, but of a very different kind than New Year's Day. As you know, the most popular holiday in Russia is all about families and close friends getting together, having a blast, enjoying delicious food, and exchanging gifts. Christmas is all about the soul and unity with God. Nowadays, most people treat this day just as another reason to get together and have a good time, but the original meaning of the celebration was to be a balm for the soul, not a treat for the stomach.
Russia Christmas Traditions
Being much less commercialized than the Catholic Christmas, the classic Orthodox celebration managed to preserve its spirituality and boasts many authentic traditions that might seem peculiar to anyone who has never been to Eastern Europe during the festive times. Although keep in mind that not many people follow all the traditions or fast before the big day.
For example, traditionally, there is no such thing as a decorated Russian Christmas tree. On the day of the Christmas Eve Feast, the head of the family should cut a branch of a fir-tree and bring it into the house. This simple action symbolizes Jesus entering the home and hearts of its residents. As you can guess, this particular tradition didn't get many followers among Russian families (especially the ones with children). Pretty much everyone puts a classically decorated tree for the New Year celebration and, as a rule, it stays all the way till Christmas and even further.
Traditional Russian Christmas decorations are not exuberant in the slightest and consist of candles, white cloth, covering a dinner table and symbolizing purity, and sometimes straw, reminding of a place where Jesus was born. Not many families are ready to forget about beautiful garlands and put straw on Christmas tables instead. So if you happen to be invited to an Orthodox Christmas celebration in Russia, you are much more likely to see beautiful lights, sugar canes, and tinsel. But candles are still hugely popular.
Russia's Christmas food is another fascinating topic. On Christmas Eve, one shouldn't eat anything till the first star appears in the sky, symbolizing the Star of Bethlehem. In the evening, people enjoy a filling dinner of 12 different courses, standing for the 12 apostles. Although the menu is quite diverse, the dishes must be lean and can't have any meat ingredients, even though this dinner marks the end of the Nativity Fast. The very first thing everyone must eat is bread, torn by hand and shared with everyone around the table. And one of the courses must be traditional Kutia, a porridge cooked with honey, poppy seeds, raisins, and sometimes walnuts.
Afterward, people get together and go to church to attend the Midnight Mass, Divine Liturgy. All Orthodox churches held services during the whole night, decorated with hundreds of candles, representing Jesus, the Light of the World. Everyone you meet should be greeted by saying: "Christ is born." The traditional reply is: "Glory him!".
As this sacred day is all about unity, spiritual growth, and connection to God, Russian Christmas gifts are traditionally modest, much less grand than it's acceptable to present someone with on New Year's Day. Something like a silver cross or a set of Nativity nesting dolls are much more appropriate options than a new iPhone.
The following 12 days after Christmas are known as Holy Days, and they last till January 17. People are getting together to celebrate the end of the fast, but these gatherings are no just about fun and games. Holy Days are the time for charity, for helping those in need. True Christian never forgets the commandment "Be merciful, as your Father is merciful," but Holy Days are the time to put others first and help where and when you can.
Russia is wast and beautiful, and Christmas traditions vary a lot depending on the region. What Christmas means for a citizen of Moscow is not the same for someone from Ulan - Ude. And how can it be any other way when family Christmas traditions differ even among neighbors! If you want to know what Russian Christmas is like from different perspectives, get ready to visit different parts of the amazing country. Just keep in mind that despite the fact that Russian trains boast a broad departure schedule, winter holidays are quite a busy season, so it's better to book tickets much in advance.