How to Celebrate a Russian Christmas

After the revolution of 1917, Christmas was banned in Russia, as were as other religious celebrations. In 1992 the holiday began to be openly observed; today it is celebrated with a lengthy night mass in the cathedrals.

In spite of the ban, Russians managed to get around the lack of a religious celebration by the inclusion of Grandfather Frost into their holiday season. Grandfather Frost, accompanied by his granddaughter Snowmaiden, travels in a magical sleigh drawn by reindeer and listens to children sing songs and say poems, then gives them gifts. This takes place on New Year’s Eve. Grandfather Frost looks a lot like Santa Claus, except his suit is blue.

The Russian Orthodox Church still uses the old Julian calendar, so the religious holiday of Christmas is celebrated on January 7th, 13 days behind the west. This is a day of ritual and joy. Orthodox Russians observe a vegetarian fast for six weeks beforehand; they are required to attend no parties or gatherings during this time.
The required fast is still in effect until the first star appears, or until after the worship service.

The traditional Christmas Eve dinner is a vegetarian meal. Kutya, a porridge made of berries and wheat symbolizes immortality. It contains honey and poppy seeds as a promise of happiness, restfulness, and success in life. It is eaten from a common bowl to symbolize the family’s unity. Some families throw a spoonful of kutya to the ceiling, which according to legend will stick if there is to be a great honey harvest. There may also be a ceremonial blessing of the home.

After the kutya, a Holy Supper takes place. The Holy Supper contains plenty of symbolism; all the foods are Lenten, but they are served and eaten in a very festive style. A white table cloth, symbolic of Christ’s swaddling clothes, covers the table. Hay is brought in as a reminder of poverty. A tall white candle is lit to symbolize the “light of the world”, and beside is placed a large round loaf of Lenten bread. The Holy Supper consists of 12 foods that represent the 12 Apostles. Following the meal, there is no dish washing, but the family opens small gifts then proceeds to church for the service. It may last as late as 2 a.m.

At Christmas, the Cathedral contains painted icons of Saints and is filled with incense. After the traditional Christmas Eve service, held at midnight, the people walk outside carrying candles, torches, or home made lanterns and parade around the church. This is called the Krestny Khod and it is a centuries-old celebration that is led by the highest ranking member of the church. When one circle around the church is complete, the congregation goes back inside to sing carols and hymns before retiring for the evening.

Christmas blends Christian and pre-Christian practices, so one interesting old tradition is groups of people caroling from house to house singing songs that are called kolydaki; they dress as manger animals. These songs are a blend of carols to the baby Jesus as well as songs to the solar goddess Koyada, who brings longer days of sun during the winter. The singers are offered food and coins for their troubles.

Russians decorate with a Christmas tree and put pine leaves on the front doors and in the house. The Christmas tree or yoka was thought to be brought to Russia by Peter the Great in the late 17th century. The tree is removed after the feast day of the baptism of Christ.

After Christmas, for ten days there is a festive holiday period called Christmas-tide. The festivals contain both Christian and pagan elements; they may be accompanied by folk stories and troika rides. The Christmas tide ends with Christening on January 19th. This is a remembrance of the christening of Christ John. Religious processions to rivers, lakes, or springs are held all over Russia; the priests pray, chant, and immerse a cross into an ice covered hole in the water. Believers then consecrate their own houses with the sacred water. Those who want to accept Christ as their savior may also be christened with the ice water at this time.

If you would like to create a Russian Christmas celebration, consider incorporating the traditional foods into your Christmas meal. Kutya with honey and poppy seeds, bread dipped in honey (for sweetness of life) and garlic (for bitterness), or any of the other Holy Supper foods may be used: Mushroom soup or Sauerkraut soup, baked cod, fresh apricots, oranges, figs, dates, nuts, cooked kidney beans, peas, parsley potatoes, bobal’ki, and red wine.