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Merry Russian Christmas
December 17, 2007 18:59

Christmas in Russia strangely falls on January 7 and not on December 25 like in Europe and all Catholic and Protestant countries, since the Orthodox Church of Russia still adheres to the Julian calendar. Hence the confusing matter with the New Year, which precedes Russian Christmas instead of following it and, moreover, interferes with the traditional Christmas fast.

Only recently the holy day of Christmas has been gradually revived in Russia after many years of abandoning it along with other clerical traditions during the Soviet era. This holiday has regained its official status, January 7 becoming a day-off. Yet, frankly speaking for the majority of Russians it still seems to be somewhat of an after-party following the New Year’s holiday and remains second to it in importance. Some of the old customs have been lost, while some are observed by many people, especially believers.

Earlier Christmas used to be the main holiday for all the Russians: an Orthodox family looked forward to Christmas for a whole year and thoroughly prepared for it. For six weeks before Christmas they fasted on fish. But then on Christmas they feasted on pork. Three days before Christmas a family would buy a fir-tree (a symbol of the Tree of Life) in bazaars and squares and decorate the home.

Sochelnik – Cristmas Eve

In Russia the Christmas Eve is called Sochelnik, or Kolyada. It is the last day of Christmas fast. On Christmas Eve it was a custom not to eat anything before the appearance of the first star in the sky as a symbol of the Bethlehem star, which once showed the Magi to the cradle of the child Jesus. Festive divine service takes place on these hours in churches. Until the evening service the church enjoins strict fasting, whereas people at war ought to be reconciled with each other.

Sochelnik is considered to be a family dinner. The word Sochelnik comes from sochivo, a sacral lenten dish that was a must for this night. It was made of almond or poppy milk mixed with honey and cereals (wheat, rye, barley, buckwheat, pea, and later even rice). Nuts and poppy seeds were added to the festive porridge.

The other main dishes were kutya made of boiled grains of wheat or barley, and vzvar, of apples, pears, plums, raisins, cherries and other fruits boiled in water. Kutya and vzvar have symbolical meaning: the first is eaten at funeral repast to commemorate the dead, whereas the second one is cooked to celebrate the birth of a child. These two dishes together stood for two remembrances – of the birth of Christ and of his death.

In the days of old the Christmas table was strewed with hey and then only covered with a tablecloth. Twelve dishes (according to the number of the Apostles) were put in the centre of the table. Apart from sochivo the feast would offer pancakes, fish, fish and meat jelly, young pork with porridge, roast, honey cakes, vzvars, etc., depending on what the family could afford.

Christmas Service in Russian Orthodox Church

Orthodox Russian Churn regards Christmas as a holiday second in importance to Easter. Back in the 4th century the celebration rituals were already established. In the 5th century Anatolius, Patriarch of Constantinople, then St. Sophronius, Patriarch of Jerusalem (6th c.), and Cosmas of Maum and John of Damascus (8th c.) composed sacred Christmas chants, which are still used by church to glorify the great event. The Night Service starts with the Grand Compline, when the church expresses its spiritual joy with the prophetical song “Iako s nami bog” (roughly translated as “For God is with us”).

The Grand Compline from time immemorial included the so-called Tsar Hours, when it was a custom to proclaim long life to the tsar, all the reigning house and all Orthodox Christians.

During the Hours the church recalls various Old Testament prophecies and events related to Saviour’s Christmas. After midday the Divine Liturgy of St. Basil the Great is celebrated, if only compline does not fall on Saturday or Sunday, when Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom is served. Before the revolution December 25 was also a civil holiday. This day marked the deliverance of church and state of Russia from the French invasion in 1812. In memory of this event a thanksgiving prayer is sung after the liturgy.

The believers get ready for proper Christmas celebrations in the course of the Christmas lent that lasts for forty days.


In spite of the church origin of Christmas, certain pagan festive customs survived in Russia, one of the most popular of them being kolyada, in some ways similar to the Western tradition of going round carol-singing.

Kolyada symbolized worship of the Sun, which gives joy and fertility; kolyadki songs were about nature phenomena, like moon, sunshine or thunderstorm, and wished good harvest and happy marriages.

The tradition of Kolyada is also being gradually revived in rural areas: people dress up in costumes and sing special songs at neighbors’ windows. They wish happiness, welfare, and good health. In return they are treated with dainties and greeted with Christmas too.

Thus, a heroine of an anonymous 18th century comedy “Merrymaking at Christmastide” explains the necessity of Christmas games in such a way: “What for should one knock about the world and lead a wretched life if not have any gaieties in between?”

Folks would dress up in all possible ways. In noble houses they arrayed themselves as mermaids, Turks, and monks; ladies often dressed up as hussars and young men, on the contrary, as ladies. It was somewhat simpler in countryside – as a rule, lads would go round carol-singing, dressed in sheepskin jackets turned inside out and masks and imitate various animals, such as bears, goats, sheep, etc.

On January 7 it is also a custom in modern Russia to visit friends and relatives, as well as receive guests, and give presents.

Merry Christmas to you!



Tags: Russian Holidays Christmas Russian Winter Slavic Symbols  

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