Russian Orthodox Christmas: Traditions, Food & Decorations

Russian Christmas Traditions

Russian Christmas Traditions

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Last updated:
29.09.2020

A magical time called Christmas is loved in Russia as well as all over the world. This public holiday is celebrated by Russians as one of the main high days of the year. In many ways, historically, ancient pagan culture and later Christianity shaped the holiday. All these age-old traditions resound with Russia's long and rich history.

The ancient pagan culture formed many customs of Russia’s Christmas. From the end of December to January people performed different rituals, asking pagan gods for a fruitful year, and held a winter festival called Koliada. After the adoption of Christianity, such rituals mixed with the new customs into unique Christmas traditions that Russians still adhere to.

Russian Orthodox Christmas

As the Russian Orthodox Church keeps to the Julian Calendar, Russian Orthodox Christmas is celebrated on January 7th. In the XXI century, the difference between the Gregorian calendar and the Julian calendar is 13 days. But, interestingly, in 2100, it will be 14 days, which will shift Russian Christmas on January 8th.

The Soviet times were not gracious to Christmas and all church holidays - they were forbidden. But, despite this fact, many people still celebrated them secretly. Thus, many Christmas traditions became a part of one of the most popular Russian holidays, New Year.

Russian Orthodox Christmas

However, people never forgot Christmas and its traditions. During the celebration, we can still observe such ancient elements of Russian holiday as fortune-telling on Christmas Eve, koliada, and singing carols (kalyadki), while worshipers follow a strict fast, which ends when the first star appears in the sky on the night of Christmas Eve.

Russian Orthodox Traditions

Traditions start from the very beginning of Christmas. In Russia, Christmas Eve is called Sachyelnik (Сочельник). The name originated from the word sochivo (сочиво), a special and symbolic meal made from grains, seeds, honey, and nuts. This meal is a symbol of the end of the 40-day Nativity Fast when the first star appears in the evening sky on the night of Sochyelnik.

Christmas Family Traditions in Russia

In Russia, Christmas is a family holiday. Traditionally, most Russians celebrate it with their relatives and loved ones. During this time of love and forgiveness, people may present their Christmas gifts to each other to show their affinity or just to make others a little bit happier.

Traditional Christmas food

When darkness falls and the fast is over, families begin a celebration meal. Russian Christmas meals are varied as many Russians do not attend church and do not follow the fast. But still celebrate this holiday of love and all-forgiveness choosing their own dishes. Traditionally, the tables groan from various Russian Christmas foods such as gherkins, pickled mushrooms, pickled apples, and sour-crout. Also, oftentimes traditional dishes include meat pies, vegetable fillings, and fish. Sbiten’ (сбитень) stands for a traditional Russian drink. Made with spices and honey, this drink was habitual before tea became popular in Russia.

Russian Christmas Eve Meal

Christmas decorations

To make the Christmas atmosphere more festive and immersive, Russians often dress their homes and apartments in Christmas decorations such as fairy lights, stars, and сutouts in the form of angels. And, of course, the Russian Christmas tree, one of the main Christmas attributes, adorns houses of many Russians.

Russian Christmas House Decoration

What Does Sbiten' Means?
There is an opinion that sbiten' takes its name from the Russian verb sbivat' (to beat up food), since it was prepared in two separate vessels. In one, honey was infused, and in the other — herbs. Then the contents of the vessels were mixed and beaten up — sbivalos'.

Christmas Fortune-Telling

Though fortune-telling isn’t tolerated by the Russian Orthodox Church, this is a tradition that began in Russia’s pagan times. Only young, unmarried women took part in fortune-telling. They gathered in a house or in a Russian sauna, which is called banya (баня). Wearing only their nightgowns with their hair loose, women began fortune-telling. One of its parts were Zagavory (заговоры) - word rituals aimed at bringing prosperity to a family.

Russian Christmas Future-Telling

In modern Russia, there are several popular types of fortune-telling, including tarot reading, coffee grounds divination, and tea leaf reading. One of the most popular is rice fortune-telling:

A candle is lit and a bowl is filled with rice in front of a person. After a question is asked or a wish is made, a person puts his or her hand into the bowl and takes it back out with a handful of rice. And then count the number of grains you drew out: if it is an even number, then your wish will come true soon, and if it is an odd number, then the wish will not come true, the offer should not be accepted, or wealth should not be expected.

Koliada

Another tradition from pre-Christian times is a winter festival called Koliada (Коляда), a kind of Christmas caroling. Its striking trait is Mummers’ plays when participants dress as different characters of folklore using fur, horns, and masks. Kolyadary (the participants) arrange a noisy carnival of dancing in the houses and on the streets. They dress up as a bear, horse, bull, goat, goose, crane, and sing kolyadki (carols).

Before starting, kolyadary gather in one place, most typically they are kids and teenagers, and in the evening they set out, going from house to house. Approaching a house, the leader reports on the arrival and thus asks the owner to allow kolyada, and whether he is ready to give gifts to those who came. After the permission is received, the main rite begins — the well-wishing to the owner of the house. If the owners take out a treat in the yard, the kolyadary thank for the gift and head to the next house. If visitors are invited to the house, they perform special carols for each of the household members.

The main core of kolyada (and the sweetest part for kids) is the moment of giving gifts to kolyadary in response to their wishes. The gift is often pastries, lard, sausages, nuts, and fruits, less often small money. It is believed that if a house owner doesn’t serve anything to kolyadary, there would be no economic profit for a year.

The Most Popular Character
Kolyadary often dress as beasts or biblical heroes but who do you think is the most popular character during Kolyada? You may be surprised but it's a goat! In Russian folklore it represents prosperity.

Russia is a land of mysteries and unusual customs. But this is exactly what excites interest in this beautiful country. Now there is one less mystery, but there are many more. And with our tours to Russia, you have an amazing opportunity to reveal the country’s secrets with your own eyes. Prepare for an adventure!


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