HOLIDAYS AND FESTIVALS IN RUSSIA
Russians like an excuse to celebrate and party. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, worshipers have been allowed once again to openly celebrate religious holidays such as Easter. It is said most holidays in Russia are marked with drunken arguments. Many Orthodox Christians celebrate their patron saint’s day rather than their birthday. If someone is named George they have a party on St. George's feast day.
Public Holidays: Official holidays are New Year’s (January 1–2), Orthodox Christmas (January 7), Women’s Day (March 8), Orthodox Easter Monday (variable date in April or early May), May Day (May 1–2), Victory Day (May 9), Russia Day (Independence Day, June 12), National Unity Day (November 4), and Constitution Day (December 12). [Source: Library of Congress, October 2006 **]
Some Russians celebrate Sweet-16 parties for girls. Visitors are warned to be careful on Paratrooper’s day. The cities are filled with drunk paratroopers who sometimes go on a rampage. One year they caused a major disturbance after getting into a fight with Azeri fruit sellers and several members almost drowned in a fountain in Moscow. One was accidently killed by his own with a grenade launcher in St. Petersburg.
Soviet era holidays that have endured include Constitution Day on December 5th. It was established to honors Stalin’s constitution but now it ostensible honors the constitution established under Yeltsin on December 12th in 1993.
There are a number of rituals tied with the agricultural cycle that were celebrated as festivals had their origins in pre-Christian folk religions. The Orthodox church incorporated some of these festivals into parts of their religious celebrations.
Some of these still endure. Nineteenth-century folklore researcher A.N. Afanasyev wrote: “The Slavs have an old custom of welcoming spring in the month of March and banishing Death, or Winter. They carry a straw effigy of death out of the village and down to the river then drown it or first burn it and throw the ashes into the water, because Winter dies in the burning rays of the spring Sun and the swift streams of thawed snow.”
A festival with an ancient ritual like the one described above is still held in rural villages such as Kreshnev in the Veseonsky District of the Tver region. There villagers produce elaborately dressed giants that are “killed” in a ritual bonfire.
The Orthodox Church observes the Julian calendar instead of the Gregorian calendar, which is used by Catholics, Protestants and most people in the modern world. The Julian calendar holidays are 13 days later than holidays on the Gregorian calendar. The Julian calendar was authorized by Julius Caesar in 46 B.C., and replaced by the Gregorian calendar, created in 1582.
The Julian calendar, established in 46. B.C. by Julius Caesar and worked out by the Alexandrian astronomer Sosgenes, had 12 months, 365 days and one leap day every four years between February 23 and February 24. It was only 11 minutes and 14 seconds out of synch with the actual solar year (one revolution of the earth around the sun). Initially Romans read Caesar's edict for the new system wrong and leap day occurred every third year. Augustus rectified the error in 8 B.C.
The 11 minutes and 14 second error may not seem like much but over hundreds of years it adds up. By Columbus's time, the vernal equinox was occurring on March 11th instead of March 21st and farmers no longer relied on the calendar for planting and harvesting their crops. In 1582 the Julian calendar was updated and replaced by the Gregorian calendar devised by Pope Gregory XIII.
Pope Gregory XIII (1502-1585) is the pope who gave us the Gregorian calendar that we use today. When he took over the papacy the Julian calendar was 11 days off out of sync with the seasons. In 1582, Pope Gregory inaugurated the calendar that would bear his name by ordaining that the day after October 4 was October 15. This aligned the seasons with the calendar but caused an uproar among servants who demanded a full month's wage but were refused it by their employers. The Gregory calendar also started the year on January 1st. To make sure the seasons and dates stayed aligned, leap years were omitted from years marking the beginning of a century. The calendar we follow today is virtually the same as the Gregorian calendar except from time to time top international time keeping bodies add a leap second to ensure that the time kept on earth is aligned with cosmos. ["The Discoveres" by Daniel Boorstien]
As a statement against the power of the Roman church some groups refused to go along with the Gregorian calendar. The eastern Orthodox Church held on to the Julian calendar for its calculations of Eastern Orthodox holidays. Russian didn't stop using the Julian calendar until the Bolshevik revolution in 1917.
Many Eastern Orthodox churches have adopted the Gregorian calendar for Christmas and the Pentecost but continue to use the Julian calendar for Easter. For monks at Mount Athos and other monasteries the day begins at sunset.
Christmas Time in Russia
Russians celebrate four major holidays around Christmas time: 1) December 25 (or "Catholic Christmas" as it is known in Russia), for most Russians, a normal work day; 2) January 1st, the traditional gift giving time; 3) Orthodox Christmas on January 7th; and Orthodox New Year's. January 7th in the Gregorian calendar (the one used today) corresponds to December 25 in the Julian calendar. Some observe a holiday season that stretches from Christmas Eve on December 24th to Orthodox New Year, 10 days after Orthodox Christmas.
Epiphany on January 6th commemorates the day that Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River. Orthodox Christians place great significance of Christ’s baptism because he sanctified water by his sacramental washing in the Jordan.
Orthodox Christmas falls on January 7th. Orthodox Christians believe that Christ is reborn every Christmas and an empty chair is set for him next to the fireplace in the home. Sometimes hay is thrown on the floor to create the Bethlehem manger.
The traditional day off for Christmas is on January 7th. Because families are short of funds this has traditionally been celebrated with a trip to the local museum or maybe a circus. In Moscow and St. Petersburg and other cities parents sometimes take their kids to McDonald’s.
Christmas was banned as holiday by the Bolsheviks after the 1917 Revolution. New Years Day was transformed into the main holiday of the winter holiday season. New Year's Day is usually celebrated on New Year's Eve.
Orthodox Christmas is on January 7th. Since the fall of Communism, it has been celebrated more enthusiastically and openly than it was before. In the Soviet era, many people forgot how to celebrate the holiday and Pravda printed instruction of what to do.
For religious Orthodox, Christmas is a quiet religious holiday second in importance to Easter. Russians begin celebrating the holiday with an hour-long Christmas Eve service and then go home and sleep and wake up for the traditional liturgy on the morning of Orthodox Christmas day. Afterwards families gather together and exchange gifts and have a large lunchtime meal, of turkey or roast chicken.
The equivalent of a Christmas tree is a fir tree called a yolka. Gifts are placed under it. Pine boughs are placed over the front door. After Christmas lunch children go from door to door to sing the carol "They Nativity" or "Your Birth."
The Orthodox Christmas period extends of six days. It is also an excuse to extend the main party holiday of New Years into week of drinking and not working. The Patriarch does a nationally televised midnight mass on Christmas Eve and gives a speech on Christmas Day. The Christmas tree is usually taken down at the end of January after the feast day of the Baptism of Christ.
In tsarist times, Christmas was celebrated with caroling in the streets, elaborate church services, huge family feasts. Aristocrats attended parties that lasted for the entire week between Christmas and New Year. The tsar used to eat swan for dinner on Christmas day. A traditional Polish Christmas dinner includes suckling pig with buckwheat porridge, pickled mushrooms and cucumbers, small savory pies. Russians have traditionally gone off into the forest with an ax and some vodka (to help keep warm) and cut the yolka tree themselves. To get a thick, well-proportioned tree, some Russians find a tall, shapely tree and climb it and cut off the top.
Western Style Christmas
Western style Christmas, with its commercialism and shopping-mania, is becoming popular in large cities such as Moscow and St. Petersburg. The upscale Sadko Arcade in Moscow sells artificial trees with handmade German decorations for $4,500, stuffed horses for $10,000, and bottles of non-alcoholic champagne, for children, with pictures of Disney characters on them. Small shops and vodka kiosks are festooned with Christmas lights, polyester Santas and plastic angels.
Russians usually get their fill of the Christmas season. When the Orthodox calendar fell in such a way that the Christmas vacation was two weeks long, many people complained. A columnist wrote in the Moscow Times: “For the overwhelming majority of Russians, two weeks of vacation at this time of the year is pure hell. The vodka and firecrackers are finished, everybody’s fed up with snacking...and you tell us we’re suppose to keep partying. We’ve even gotten to the end of all the relatives lined up for ceremonial visits. It’s depressing.”
A Moscow travel agent told the Los Angeles Times, “We ended up simply killing time...My husband was glued to the Internet; my daughter watched cartoons on TV; and I chatted on the phone for hours on end...In between, each of us would emerge from his own corner, snarl at each other and go back to his nook. It was the most horrible, eventless and irritating vacation I ever had.”
Many children get presents such a video of a popular cartoon, dolls, a recorder or simple things like a notebook, book, water pistol or a ballpoint pen. Many Western ideas of Christmas haven't completely caught on. When some Russian see a stocking on sale they often ask where the other sock is.
Grandfather Frost and the Old Babushka
On January 6th, children are given gifts and told they come from the Old Babushka, an old woman who gave the Three Wise Men the wrong directions. Now she goes from place to place in hopes of one day finding the Christ child. Everywhere she goes she leaves a small gift.
Ded Moroz, or Grandfather Frost, is the Russian equivalent of Santa Claus. Traditionally, he wasn't fat or jolly and didn’t travel with a sleigh or climb down chimney. No, he was thin and very tall and showed up at front doors, wearing a full-length caftan rather than a red jacket. He and his companion Snegurochka, or the Snow Maiden, bear gifts and bring the cold of winter. Children write letters to him as they would to Santa. These days Ded Moroz often looks just like Santa Klaus.
Santa Claus is regarded as a dead man—the 10th century saint St. Nicholas. Grandfather Frost is threatened by him although the two Christmas symbols are very similar. Some children send their letters to grandfather Frost but like American-style Santa Claus because he is cuter.
New Year's Day
New Year's Day is the traditional gift giving time in Russia, and the most festive holiday of the year. Under Communism it incorporating many traditions associated with Christmas: decorated trees, gift giving, Ded Moroz and Snegurochka, the Snow Maiden. It is celebrated according to the Western calendar. Many Russians celebrate New Years Eve with vodka, champagne and Napoleons similar to the French pastry by the same name. St. Petersburg has traditionally ushered in the new year with a hundred canon shots midnight.
The old is rung out with vodka and the new is rung in with champagne while listening to the chimes of the Kremlin on television. Russians celebrate it much like Chiasmas with gift exchanging trees and also like to light sparklers to celebrate the new year. Typical foods include jelled, minced meats, slated herring and bland salads. Soothsaying on New Years’s has traditionally been important.
Many people also celebrate Orthodox New Year—Old New Year—on January 13th. The original New Year’s celebrations were oriented towards Kolyada, the newborn sun. Features of the ancient celebration included a ring of bonfires to show the sun’s path through the sky and frighten away evil spirit. Many villages erect poles with disks and pancakes at the top to symbolize the sun.
For New Year children have traditionally gotten modest gifts such as a box of chocolates, a book of fairy tales, a bottle of shampoo or a 1001 Dalmatians video. Often they only got one present a year and were appreciative to get that,
Lent is the period of fasting before Easter. Orthodox Lent is about 50 days long (compared with Catholic Lent, which is 40 days long). All days are days of abstinence, 43 are also fast days. Lent ends around the time that Easter events begin. Russian Orthodox Christians observe 48 days of Lent by not drinking alcohol or eating food that comes from animals such as meat, milk or eggs and or products that contains these things, even milk chocolate. The consumption of red wine and seafood is okay on certain dates.
Known as Pascha in Russia,Lent is an effort to relive Jesus's 40-day fast in the wilderness. In tsarist times it was a somber holiday in which theaters were closed and people observed strict fast rules. During the Soviet era it was largely ignored.
Since the break up of the Soviet Union, Lent has come back with a vengeance, especially among the nouveau riche. Some observe the holiday because they are religious. Some do it because it's trendy. Others do it to loose weight and stay healthy. According to Orthodox customs, one is not supposed to talk about it.
According to a survey in 2001, about a third of the Russians interviewed said they tried fasting but most said they would drink on March 1st and only 3 percent said they would observe the strictest form of fasting. Strict adherents limit themselves to one meal a day and don't eat at all on certain days. As is the case with Muslim observing Ramadan, pregnant women, nursing mothers, sick people and travelers are exempt from the fasting rules.
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent. In many countries Carnival takes place before this. Forgiveness Friday, before the beginning of Lent, is a day in which Russians repent for their sins Most Russians celebrate Maslensita (the Russian equivalent counterpart to Shrove Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday) with traditional foods such as blinis. In many part of Russia people celebrate the holiday by building of massive snow forts and battles in which half of a town is pitted against the other half.
Traditional Lenten meals are based on potatoes, lentils and buckwheat. These days many people try to only fruits and nuts. Airlines and trendy restaurants and even the Kremlin offer special Lenten menus, with special meatless meals liked mushroom puree and grilled eggplant, lobster with mango sauce and minestrone miso soup. In some places Lent— a times in which people are supposed to eat little or nothing at all—has been turned into a time of feasting.
Orthodox Easter is the most important religious holiday of the year for Orthodox Christians. It is the focus of the church year and is celebrated with a festive midnight service Saturday night to usher in Easter day that often last well into Sunday morning. The ceremonies vary from region to region but they usually climax with chants of "Christ is born" and answering calls of "He is born indeed!"
Orthodox Easter is held on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the Mosaic Passover. It falls on a different day, generally about four weeks later, than Catholic and Protestant Easter. Easter is celebrated with a children's mass that replicates the events that took place at the midnight mass for adults the night before.
Easter is celebrated in Russia with decorated eggs, traditional foods and banners hung on houses and streets that read "Happy Easter." As is true in the West, Easter, for most Russians, has lost its religious significance and is simply and chance to relax at home. On Easter, Russians greet one another with " Khristos Voskrese" ("Christ has risen") and three kisses. The traditional Easter gift is a red enamel egg.
Traditional Easter foods include salmon coulibiac (salmon, rice and nuts), new potatoes with sour cream, caviar, kulich cake, and paskha (a whipped desert sort of like cheesecake prepared in special wooden molds). But most all there are eggs: white chocolate eggs and red hard boiled eggs as well as porcelain eggs, enamel eggs, gold eggs and even diamond eggs.
Orthodox Palm Sunday has traditionally been a time of the year when Russians visit the graves of deceased relatives and eat cookies and drink vodka at he family plots.
The Ukraine and Russia are famous for their decorated eggs. The famous Faberge eggs are most obvious example of this art from. On Easter red hard boiled eggs are banged together over dinner. You make a wish and if your egg doesn't crack you wish comes true. According to Orthodox teachings, Mary Magdalene first used an egg as a symbol of Christ’s Resurrection. The tradition of exchanging eggs at Easter has endured for centuries.
May Day has traditionally been a day to get shit faced drunk. Today it is known as the Day of International Worker’s Solidarity but is often called the Day of Spring and Labor.
May Day was originally a pagan festival known to the Celts as Beltane and the Teutons as Walpurgisnacht. Commemorating the arrival of spring and celebrating fertility, it paid homage to deities such as Bel, Walpurga, Diana and Eostre (the source of the name "Easter"). The holiday was celebrated with drunkenness, promiscuity and disrespect for authority. The maypole was both a phallic symbol and a symbol of the European worship of sacred trees. The maypole dance was a drunken affair in which the aim was for men and women to become entangled and pressed close to one another in lustful embraces.
One British manifestation of the holiday was Robin Goodfellow, also known as the Green Man of Lord of Misrule, a satirical holiday in which peasants were encouraged to mock the aristocracy and the priestly classes. May Day endured for many centuries until it was banned in many parts of Europe by puritanical Protestant sects and then resurrected as a children's festival.
May Day's association with the labor movement is traced back to holidays like Robin Goodfellow, which was popular among trade guilds, and became more established in 1886 when workers in the United States held a series of strikes on May 1st in efforts to win an eight-day work week. The event received international attention when a bomb was exploded in a crowd at Haymarket Square in Chicago. The trial for eight anarchist charged with the bombing (four of whom were executed despite little evidence) was the rallying point for the early workers movement.
In 1889, the International Working Men's Association (also known as the First International) declared May Day as the international worker's holiday and adopted the red flag in commemoration of those who spilled their blood fighting for labor rights. The first May Day celebration was held in Paris in 1889. It featured parades and speeches.
In the Communist era, May Day festivities featured parades with tanks, missiles and children waving red banners and chorus singing The Internationale in front of moribund party leaders at the Kremlin reviewing stand. The holiday is also celebrated in many non-Communist countries as Labor Day.
Day of the Great October Socialist Revolution
The Day of the Great October Socialist Revolution on November 7th marks the anniversary of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, which was celebrated in Soviet times with a day off from work, red-banner parades, and drunken parties. On the Julian calendar the November 7th the event occurred in October. The Bolshevik Revolution is also called the October Revolution.
After the break up of the Soviet Union, November 7th remained a day off from work and was renamed the Day of Accord and Reconciliation Day. Communist supporters, most of them elderly, continue to gather in Red Square with pictures of Stalin and Lenin and sings patriotic Soviet-era songs and hold signs with things like “Down with Bourgeois Counterrevolutionaries” written on them.
Some have suggesting replacing the November 7th holiday with one on November 4th called National Unity Day. November 4th is when Kozma Minin and Prince Dmitri Pojarskt led an uprising against Polish occupiers in Moscow in 1612. Others insist on keeping things they way they are because it is a day off from work and a means of placating recalcitrant Communists.
Valentines Day and International Women’s Day
In the 1990s and 2000s, Valentines Day started to become popular with Russians. Flower sellers reported dramatic increases in the sale of roses and men and women exchanged heart-shaped cards and candies known as valentinkis. In the Ural Mountain city of Ekaterinburg, women who broke traffic laws were given perfume rather than tickets. A Moscow flower seller said that a forth of her customers were women buying roses for the men in their lives.
Not everyone was pleased by the trend. One Orthodox church cultural official condemned Valentine’s Day as “a day of fornication, a day of bestiality”, adding that “the cultural sewage pipes of f Europe have burst and everything is coming up here.”
On the Soviet-devised International Women’s Day, men were expected to give their wives, female coworkers or teachers flowers or chocolates. Most males regarded it as obligation to fulfill and little more. The holiday was originally conceived to honor the women that participated in a demonstration ‘for bread and peace” in St. Petersburg in 1917 that was a key event in the Bolsheviks overthrowing the tsar.
Day of the Defenders of the Fatherland (formally Day of the Soviet Army and Navy) on February 23 is known informally as Men’s Day. It is a time when gifts are given to men but it is not a day off from work.
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated May 2016