Christmas Traditions in Russia

Prior to the time of communist rule, Christmas was celebrated as one of the Christian holidays in Russia. However, for Russians and other Eastern Slavs, the main Christian holiday was Easter.

With the Julian calendar the one officially recognized by the Russian Orthodox Church, Christmas falls two weeks later than it does in Western churches. Most Russian customs related to this time are associated with “Yuletide” which takes place from Christmas Day (January 7) to Epiphany (January 19).

Yuletide is the time of year associated with outdoor celebrations around Christmas trees. Included in these celebrations were a mixture of pagan beliefs and traditions. Young girls would try to learn the identity of their future groom by attempting fortune-telling with a rooster. During these outdoor celebrations people would also go for rides in a three-horse open sleigh, known as a “troika.”

Another popular activity at this time of year was the practice of “kolyadovanie” or Christmas caroling. Carolers would travel throughout the village singing beneath the windows of homes. For their efforts, singers would be rewarded with good food from their audience.

Many families that live in the countryside villages keep the tradition of having their fortunes told on the night before Christmas. There is the belief that girls and women can see their future if they pour melted wax into a gold or silver cup full of water, and then try to recognize what symbols are formed by the hardening wax. The endless Russian imagination is shown as sometimes, in the wax mass, young ladies can see themselves in golden carriages, or their parents in the hospital, or even their husbands in the company of other damsels! Always the atmosphere surrounding this ceremony is mysterious. You should only whisper, because loud voices may scare the good spirits and summon evil ones. Or you may see the reflection of dead people walking in the reflecting from the candles, or twinkling in the mirror. The frightening creak of the wind hitting the house will only heighten the mystery.

Some young ladies try to know the name of their future husbands. They throw their boot over the fence and the first man to find the boot tells his name, or the name of another man, and this will be the name of the future beloved. So many confusions happen! For example, the girl stands for hours in the street, with one foot freezing, and no man comes along, or only the village drunk who cannot even say his own name, much less that of another man. Many times men just walk past the boot without noticing.

On Christmas morning, when all of these mysterious ceremonies are done, the whole village comes to the church service. They all praise God at Jesus’ birth, and congratulate one another on being His people. Finally people close the holiday with a great party, with wonderful food and costumes…an event that will be talked about all year!

Few of these traditions survived the onset of communism. Most holidays were banned. For a time even the New Year’s celebration was banned. It was later reinstituted as a holiday for the people. For the last several decades many of the traditions associated with Christmas in the West have found expression on January 1st, the New Year’s holiday.

The first of January is ushered in by the arrival of “Ded Moroz” (Father Frost) and his female helper “Snegurochka.” Christmas trees are set up and decorated for family gatherings that are generous with food, drink, and gifts. At midnight it is customary to drink champagne and make toasts to the coming year. While it is believed that how you greet the New Year will determine your luck for the coming year, this celebration is a secular one with no religious significance.

In recent times, Christmas Day on January 7 has been declared an official holiday, The Nativity of Our Lord. Today, the formal church celebration of Christmas is a solemn one marked by the broadcast of the Orthodox Christmas service to the entire country.