Russian Christmas and New Year celebrations differ from the ones in other countries.
Russia celebrates Christmas on January 7th, while the rest of the Christian world celebrates it on December 25th. This is because the Russian Orthodox Church still follows the old Julian calendar that was in use in most of Europe for more than 1,600 years. The modern Gregorian calendar is ahead of Julian calendar by 13 days. Therefore, 13 days past December 25th gives us January 7th.
The tradition of Christmas celebration has always been observed even though it was celebrated in secret during Soviet times. Christmas was banned as a religious holiday in 1929, and Christmas Trees became New Year trees in 1937. Celebrating Christmas was prohibited and became a private matter. People regarded Christmas as a more religious and private event even after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. The main and most anticipated holiday of the year is still New Year’s Day. Since Christmas comes later, it is a much smaller and quieter celebration than New Year’s. Today, the official winter holidays in Russia last from December 31st to January 10th and are official days off for everybody regardless of their religion.
Some people fast on Christmas Eve until the first star appears in the sky. Others don’t eat any meat or fish during the Christmas Eve dinner. Instead, they eat traditional Christmas dishes like sochivo, from which the name for Christmas Eve “Sochelnik” comes from. Another traditional dish is kutia, which is porridge made from wheat or rice and served with honey, poppy seeds, fruit, berries, raisins, and chopped walnuts. These dishes are served family-style and eaten from one bowl, which signifies the unity of the family.
In the old days, two weeks between the Orthodox Christmas (January 7th) and Epiphany ( January 19th ) were known as “Svyatki” or holy evenings. This ancient folk festival goes back to pre-Christian times. Russian culture is full of folk festivals, magical rites, and fortune-telling customs. Its Christian and pagan customs are interwoven as they are in many other Eastern European cultures. Ancient divination or fortune-telling traditions are still very popular in Russia. Numerous superstitions and rites are associated with Svyatki. Young women get together at night to foretell their future using household objects like mirrors and candles. Dreams have very big significance during this time for predicting when girls will get married, what the names of their future husbands will be, or even from which direction their loved ones will come.
Since New Year’s is a much bigger celebration than Christmas, people do not exchange gifts on Christmas. It is done on New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day. Grandfather Frost, known as “Ded Moroz,” brings gifts to the children, not Babushka as it is believed in the West. Families do exchange gifts, but the whole process of gift-giving is less commercial than in the Western World. The holidays are about time spent together with families and friends. Interestingly, New Year’s cards are only sent in the mail to those people who live far away. There is no card exchange if people gather to celebrate the holidays together.
There is a lot of thought that goes into the New Year’s party celebration. The menu is agreed upon 2-3 weeks in advance; the food is being prepared 1-2 days ahead by the same person who hosts the party. Guests usually bring a bottle of wine and a box of chocolates. Women guests would also dress up according to the Chinese horoscope tradition. There are specific colors associated with each animal that would please the upcoming year’s animal symbol. Decorating the house and dressing up according to this tradition is believed to bring prosperity to the whole household. Some women even have dressmakers sew new dresses just to wear this once during the New Year’s party. Many people are certain that the way you meet the New Year is the way you are going to spend it; therefore, to have a prosperous year, you need to make sure to spend the magical New Year’s night right. A multitude of traditional dishes needs to be served, tables well set with Chrystal glassware (another symbol of prosperity), houses well decorated, and guests need to wear their best attire. Moreover, the main rule is not to miss the coming of the New Year at midnight. There is a belief that if you write a wish on a small piece of paper, burn it, put the ashes in the glass of champagne, and drink it up while the clock strikes twelve, the wish will definitely come true.
No expense is spared when it comes to the festive dinner on New Year’s Eve. The dinner starts with cold appetizers. One of the most typical dishes served at the New Year’s Eve tables is salad “Olivie.” It is similar to a potato salad with additions of ham, peas, carrots, and a heavy layer of mayonnaise mixed with sour cream as a salad dressing.
Another traditional winter root salad, known as Russian salad, is “Vinigret.” Beetroots, carrots, potatoes, pickles, onions, and apples are traditionally used in this recipe, as well as a heavy layer of mayonnaise.
No festive dinner can be served without beetroot and herring salad called “Herring under coat.” The coat, in this case, means layers of boiled beets, carrots, potatoes, and apples on top of deboned and chopped pieces of pickled herring. All layered with mayonnaise, of course.
Canapés are pieces of French baguette with butter and red caviar, which are another staple of the New Year’s feast, as well as an assortment of pickled vegetables.
A roasted goose or duck stuffed with apples and served with mashed potatoes is an example of a common main dish. A dish similar to potatoes au gratin- slices of pork topped with sliced potatoes, onions, and grated cheese, baked in the oven is another favorite hot dish.
Slices of oranges on a small dessert plate would be commonly seen on a festive table, along with slices of lemons and whole tangerines.
There is a superstition not to eat the meat of the Chinese zodiac animal ruling the coming year.
The year of 2021 is the year of Golden Bull; therefore, dishes from veal or beef should be avoided. Serve poultry, potatoes, and lots of fruit and vegetables instead. New dresses for the New Year’s party should be of light colors – white, beige, cream, silver, and golden. Do not wear red color to not make the bull mad.
There are many customs connected to New Year celebrations:
- Decorating a fir tree for the New Year, not for Christmas, and put presents under New Year’s tree.
- Spending New Year’s Eve with a large company of family and friends.
- Staying up all night
- Watching a traditionally shown “Irony of Fate” movie
- Listening to the president’s speech during the last minutes of the going away year.
- Clinking glasses of champagne as the clock on Kremlin’s Spasskaya
- Tower strikes twelve.
- Continue celebrating outside with other people, often visiting friends living nearby.
- Believing that if there is an abundance of rich dishes on the festive table (symbol of prosperity), the whole year will be good for you and will bring prosperity and good fortune.
Another interesting custom is celebrating the Old New Year on January 14th. The tradition comes from the same time difference between the “old” Julian and the “new” Gregorian calendars.
This celebration is not as festive as the first New Year’s but it is still traditionally observed by many.