No St. Nicholas, no Christmas tree, no chocolates for Christmas dinner- this is what Russian Christmas looked like under the Soviet government. With the fall of communism in 1992, Christmas is openly celebrated throughout the country although New Year is still more popular among Russians. Together, New Year and Christmas make up a holiday season which starts on December 31st and continues till January 19th. These winter celebrations in Russia are associated with a number of practices, which represent a blend of tradition from Russia’s Christian, pre-Christian and Soviet past.
To start with, Christmas in Russia falls on January 7th, 13 days behind western countries because the Russian Orthodox Church still uses the old Julian calendar. Nowadays Christian roots of the holiday became more important than ever. Thousands of Russians attend the all-night Christmas Eve Mass in richly decorated сathedrals. After the service, people led by the highest-ranking member of the church go out to parade around the church carrying candles and torches. When this procession known as Krestny Khod is over, the congregation reenters the church and sings carols and hymns before going home for a Christmas Eve dinner.
The most important dish on a festive table is a special porridge called kutya. Its ingredients have a symbolic meaning: grains and berries symbolize hope and immortality, honey and seeds- happiness and success. Moreover, the custom to eat kutya from a common dish stands for unity and harmony in a family. Kutya is also interesting as an etymological source of the verb “kutit” (to drink and party much without considering the consequences). Kutya was the first dish of a Christmas dinner that people were allowed to taste after 40 days of fasting. Having tasted kutya some proceeded to heavier food and alcoholic drinks and usually ended up “kutiing”.
Another tradition that has a pagan origin is travelling from house to house singing songs known as kolyadki. As a rule, kolyadki have nothing to do with Christianity and represent homages to the ancient solar goddess Kolyada, who brings sunlight through the winter. In return for their songs, the singers were offered food and coins. If not, they would just block the entrance door with snow or woods or do some other nasty things.
Winter celebrations in Russia are unthinkable without two characters born in the Soviet era. As it was forbidden to have St. Nicholas or any other Saint to bring presents, Russians came up with a non-religious characters Father Frost (Ded Moroz), the Russian Spirit of Winter, and his granddaughter Snow maiden (Snyegurochka). Now the couple can be seen on every celebration entertaining adults and children, organizing singing and dancing around the New Year tree (Yolka) and distributing presents.
Absorbing all these traditions, modern Russian Christmas has become a wonderful winter mix of religious and secular, Christian and pagan, holy and consumptive. And believe me or not, you can express it all with a single-line greeting on a postcard: “S Novym Godom i Rozhdestvom Hristovym!”