Understanding Russian Culture: Holidays and Traditions

Moscow Celebrates Maslenitsa Festval
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Discover Russian culture by learning about its holidays and traditions, both new and old.

Some holidays celebrated in modern Russia originated back in the times of the ancient Slavs, who practiced Pagan customs. With the adoption of Christianity, many Pagan traditions merged with the new Christian customs. After the Russian Revolution, Christian holidays were abolished, but many Russians continued to celebrate in secret.

Nowadays, Russians enjoy their own combinations of these holidays and traditions, often exchanging gifts or performing pranks according to each holiday's customs.

Did You Know?

When Christmas was forbidden during Russia's Soviet era, many Russians began practicing Christmas customs on New Year's instead.

01
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Новый год (New Year's Eve)

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New Year's Eve is the biggest and most cherished holiday of the Russian year. Since the official Christmas was forbidden during the Soviet years, many traditions moved from Christmas to the New Year, including presents under the Christmas tree and visits from the Russian equivalent of the Western Santa, Дед Мороз (dyed-maROZ). These traditions take place alongside Soviet-era customs such as the salad called оливье (aleevYEH) and the traditional Russian dish of aspic: студень (STOOden') and холодец (halaDYETS).

New Year’s Eve is considered the most magical time of the year in Russia. It is believed that the way you spend the night—particularly the moment when the clock strikes midnight—determines the kind of year you will have. Many Russians pay visits to their friends and family throughout the night, making toasts to the incoming year and thanking the old one.

Making this holiday even more special is the fact that Russians enjoy ten official days off during the New Year celebrations, starting on or around December 30th.

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Рождество (Christmas)

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Russian Christmas is celebrated on the 7th of January, according to the Julian calendar. It was forbidden during the Soviet era, but nowadays many Russians celebrate it with a meal and gifts for their loved ones. Some of the old Russian traditions are still observed, including the customary fortune-telling on Christmas Eve, which includes tarot readings and tea leaf and coffee ground divination. Traditionally, the fortune-telling (гадания, pronounced gaDAneeya) began on Christmas Eve on January 6th and continued until January 19th. Now, however, many Russians begin as early as December 24.

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Старый Новый год (Old New Year)

Kremlin Guard At Russian Winter Festival
A celebration of Old New Year at the Russian Winter Festival event in the UK. Scott Barbour / Getty Images

Based on the Julian calendar, the Old New Year falls on January 14th and usually signifies the end of January festivities. Most people keep their Christmas trees until this day. Small presents are sometimes exchanged, and there is often a celebration meal on the Old New Year’s Eve. The holiday isn’t as lavish as New Year’s Eve. Most Russians view it as a pleasant excuse to celebrate one more time before returning to work after the New Year break.

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День Защитника Отечества (Day of The Defender of The Fatherland)

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The Day of The Defender of The Fatherland is an important holiday in today’s Russia. It was established in 1922 as a celebration of the foundation of the Red Army. On this day, men and boys receive gifts and congratulations. Women in the military are also congratulated, but the holiday is best known informally as the Men’s Day.

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Масленица (Maslenitsa)

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The story of Maslenitsa originated in the pagan times, when the ancient Rus worshipped the Sun. When Christianity came to Russia, many of the old traditions remained popular, merging with the new, Christian meaning of the holiday.

In modern Russia, the symbol of Maslenitsa is the pancake, or блин (bleen), representing the sun, and a straw Maslenitsa doll, which is burned at the end of the celebration week. Maslenitsa is both a farewell to the winter and a welcoming party for the spring. Many traditional activities take place during the Maslenitsa week, including pancake competitions, traditional performances with clowns and characters from Russian fairy tales, snowball fights, and harp music. Pancakes are traditionally made at home and eaten with honey, caviar, sour cream, mushrooms, Russian jam (варенье, pronounced vaRYEnye), and many other tasty fillings.

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Международный женский день (International Women's Day)

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On International Women's Day, Russian men present women in their lives with flowers, chocolate, and other gifts. Unlike in other countries, where this day is celebrated with demonstrations in support of women's rights, Russia's International Women's Day is generally seen as a day of romance and love, similar to Valentine's Day.

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Пасха (Easter)

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Eastern Orthodox Easter is the most important holiday for the Russian Orthodox Church. Traditional breads are eaten on this day: the кулич (kooLEECH), or the паска (PASkah) in southern Russia. Russians greet each other with the phrase "Христос воскрес" (KhrisTOS vasKRYES), meaning "Christ is risen." This greeting is answered with "Воистину воскрес" (vaEESteenoo vasKRYES), which means "Truly, He is risen."

On this day, eggs are traditionally boiled in water with onion skin to make the shells red or brown. Alternatively customs include painting the eggs and cracking boiled eggs on loved ones' foreheads.

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День Победы (Victory Day)

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The Victory Day, celebrated on May 9th, is one of the most solemn Russian holidays. Victory Day signifies the day of the surrender of Nazi Germany in World War II, which is called the Great Patriotic War of 1941-1945 in Russia. Parades, fireworks, salutes, performances, and meetings with veterans take place all day across the country, as does the biggest annual military parade in Moscow. Since 2012, the March of the Immortal Regiment has been an increasingly popular way to honor those who died in the war, with participants carrying photographs of the loved ones they lost as they march through the cities.

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День России (Day of Russia)

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The Day of Russia is celebrated on June 12th. It has acquired an increasingly patriotic mood in recent years, with many festive events taking part across the country, including the grand fireworks salute at Red Square in Moscow.

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Иван Купала (Ivan Kupala)

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Celebrated on July 6, Ivan Kupala night takes places exactly six months after the Russian Orthodox Christmas. Much like Russian Orthodox Christmas, the Ivan Kupala festivities combine Pagan and Christian rituals and traditions.

Originally a holiday of the summer equinox, the Ivan Kupala day takes its modern name from John (Ivan in Russian) the Baptist and the ancient Rus goddess Kupala, the goddess of the Sun, fertility, joy, and water. In modern Russia, the nighttime celebration features silly water-related pranks and a few romantic traditions, like couples holding hands while jumping over a fire to see if their love will last. Single young women float flower wreaths down a river and single young men try to catch them in the hopes of capturing the interest of the woman whose wreaths they catch.