Yolka: The Holidays in Russia

Join us on December 6th for “Yolka: Language of Food Russia” to experience the holiday traditions of the world’s largest country! What holiday traditions are those? Learn a little about them below.

For much of the 20th century, there was no Christmas in Russia, at least publicly. After the October Revolution in 1917, religious holidays were banned by the officially atheist Soviet government, and this included the celebration of Christmas.  Instead, the secular New Year’s holiday came to replace it, though, in an odd twist, many Christmas traditions were repurposed as New Year’s celebrations.

The “Yolka”, or fir tree, was one casualty of the Soviet ban on religion.  Because Christmas trees were no longer allowed, Russians began to decorate New Year’s trees instead, and these were adopted as part of the official holiday celebration in 1935.  The Christmas tree was not native to Russia either, though; Peter the Great imported the custom in the 1700s, after a visit to Europe.

Because St. Nicholas was also frowned upon by the Soviet authorities, he came to be replaced by an old Russian figure named Ded Moroz (“Grandfather Frost”).  Accompanied by Snegurochka, the Snow Maiden, Ded Moroz is said to come in his troika on the night of December 31st to place presents under the New Year’s tree. He is depicted as looking very similar to Santa Claus, but wears a blue suit instead of a red.

Throughout the 20th century, Christmas traditions faded in Russia, though some still celebrated in secret.  In 1992, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, it once again became acceptable to openly observe the Christmas holiday, and many Russians have since returned to their Christian Orthodox roots.  Although Christmas is now a national holiday, New Year’s remains the more popular and widely celebrated of the two, and Ded Moroz still leaves presents under the New Year’s tree.

In Russia, today as before 1917, Christmas is largely celebrated according to the Orthodox – also called the Julian – calendar, and so begins on January 7th and lasts until January 19th.  The period is called “Svyatki,” or Christmastide. According to the Orthodox calendar though, New Year’s falls on January 14th, so some Russians celebrate a second New Year then.

Svyatki carries with it a host of special traditions, many of which are Slavic in origin, predating Christianity.  These include fortunetelling –  young girls especially try and find out who they will marry and when – and a caroling tradition called “kolyadki,” in which people dress up (sometimes as animals) and go house to house, singing in exchange for candies, chocolate, drinks, and pastries.  On the epiphany, following Christian tradition, the devout take a dip in freezing rivers or lakes to celebrate the baptism of Jesus.

Still, Christmas is largely a religious holiday in Russia: for devout families, there are several long church services on Christmas Eve day, then an all-night vigil, and then a nativity service on Christmas day.  The Nativity fast is a central part of the Russian Orthodox Christmas tradition, although not only religious families observe it.  The fast, which prohibits meal, dairy, and alcohol, among other things, lasts for 40 days, beginning in November.  On Christmas Eve, families refrain from eating at all from noon until the first stars come out, and then enjoy a special meal Lenten meal called “the Holy Supper,” consisting of 12 dishes for the 12 apostles.  Hay is often used to decorate the table, as a reminder of the manger, and a white table cloth, to symbolize the clothes the baby Jesus was wrapped in.  No meat is served, and a special porridge, called “kutya,” is the meal’s main dish: its wheatberries standing for hope and honey and poppy seeds for peace and happiness.  It’s said that some families would throw a spoonful at the ceiling; if it stuck, it foretold a good harvest.  Also traditional is a loaf of Lenten bread, or “pagach,” which is dipped in honey and garlic before being eaten, as a symbol of the sweetness and bitterness of life.  After dinner, it is usual not to wash dishes.

The nativity meal, on Christmas day, represents the end of the fast – one can imagine that there will be meat, wine, and cheese!

Many Russian authors have described Christmas celebrations in their work.  One of the most popular is a story by the great writer Nikolai Gogol, “The Night Before Christmas,” which was made into a cartoon in 1951.  You can watch it, with English subtitles, below: