How Christmas Is Celebrated in Russia

Russian Christmas traditions include caroling and fortune-telling

via Getty Images /Artem Vorobiev
 

 

Christmas is a public holiday in Russia, celebrated by many Christian Russians as one of the most important holidays of the year. While some Russian Christmas traditions are similar to those practiced in the West, others are specific to Russia, reflecting Russia's rich history and the traditions associated with the Russian Orthodox Church.

Fast Facts: Christmas in Russia

  • In Russia, Christmas is celebrated on January 7th.
  • Many Russian Christmas traditions originated with the pagan culture that predated Christianity in Russia.
  • Long-standing Russian Christmas customs include caroling, fortune-telling, and following a strict Nativity Fast for forty days leading up to Christmas Eve.

Many of Russia's Christmas customs originated with the pagan culture that existed in Russia before the arrival of Christianity. Pagan rituals designed to bring about a good year with a rich harvest were performed from the end of December until around mid-January. When Christianity arrived in Russia, these rituals transformed and merged with the customs of the newly arrived religion, creating a unique mixture of Christmas traditions that are still observed in Russia today.

Russian Orthodox Christmas

Russian Orthodox Christmas is celebrated on January 7th, according to the Julian calendar observed by the Russian Orthodox Church. Currently, the difference between the Gregorian calendar and the Julian calendar is 13 days. Starting in 2100, the difference will increase to 14 days, and Russian Christmas will thus be celebrated on January 8th from then onwards, until the next increase.

During the Soviet era, Christmas and all other church holidays were banned (though many people continued to celebrate them in secret). Many Christmas traditions were moved to New Year's, which has been the most popular holiday in Russia ever since.

Nevertheless, a wealth of Christmas traditions remain in Russia, including fortune-telling on Christmas Eve, singing Christmas carols (колядки, pronounced kaLYADky), and following a strict fast until the first star appears in the sky on the night of Christmas Eve.

Russian Christmas Traditions

Traditionally, Russian Christmas celebrations begin on Christmas Eve, called Сочельник (saCHYELnik). The name Сочельник comes from the word сочиво (SOHchiva), a special meal made from grains (usually wheat), seeds, nuts, honey, and sometimes dried fruit. This meal, also known as кутья (kooTYA), signifies the end of the strict Nativity Fast which is held for forty days. The Nativity Fast is observed until the first star is seen in the evening sky on the night of Сочельник, to symbolize the appearance of the Star of Bethlehem that inspired and led the three wise men to Jesus' home in Jerusalem.

Russian Christmas is spent with family, and is considered a time of forgiveness and love. Thoughtful gifts are given to loved ones, and homes are decorated with figures of angels, stars, and nativity scenes. Many Russians attend a Christmas mass on Christmas Eve.

After dark, once the fast is broken, families sit down for a celebration meal. Traditionally, various pickled items are served, including gherkins, pickled mushrooms, sauerkraut, and pickled apples. Other traditional dishes include pies meat, mushroom, fish, or vegetable fillings. A drink called сбитень (ZBEEtyn'), made with spices and honey, is also served. (сбитень was once the most popular drink in Russia, before tea took over.)

Today, Russian Christmas meals are eclectic and varied, with some families following tradition and others choosing entirely different dishes. Many Russians do not follow the fast or attend church, but still celebrate Christmas, viewing the holiday as a celebration of love, acceptance, and tolerance.

Christmas Fortune-Telling

Fortune-telling is a tradition that began in Russia's pre-Christianity times (and is not condoned by the Russian Orthodox Church). Traditionally, fortune-telling was performed by young, unmarried women who gathered at a house or a баня (BAnya)—a Russian sauna. The women wore only their nightgowns and kept their hair loose. Married women and men were not allowed to take part in fortune-telling rituals. Instead, older women performed заговоры (zagaVOry): word-based rituals designed to bring prosperity to their families.

In today's Russia, many fortune-telling rituals involve the whole family. Tarot reading, tea leaf reading and coffee grounds divination are also common. Here are some examples of traditional fortune-telling methods performed at Russian Christmas celebrations:

A bowl is filled with rice and a question is asked or a wish is made. When you put your hand into the bowl and then take it back out, you must count the number of grains that have stuck to your hand. An even number means that the wish will come true soon, while an odd number means that it will come true after some time. It can also be seen as a yes or no answer to the question.

Gather as many cups or mugs as there are people present. One of the following objects is put in each cup (one object per cup): a ring, a coin, an onion, some salt, a piece of bread, some sugar, and water. Everyone takes turns to choose a cup, keeping their eyes closed. The chosen object represents the near future. A ring means a wedding, a coin means wealth, bread means abundance, sugar means happy times and laughter, an onion means tears, salt means difficult times, and a cup of water means life without changes.

Traditionally, on Christmas Eve, young women went outside and asked the first man they saw what his name was. This name was believed to be the name of their future husband.

Merry Christmas in Russian

The most common Russian Christmas greetings are:

  • С Рождеством Христовым (s razhdystVOM khrisTOvym): Merry Christmas
  • С Рождеством (s razhdystVOM): Merry Christmas (abbreviated)
  • С праздником (s PRAZnikum): Happy holidays