Merry Christmas to all my Far Abroad-dwelling friends!
For me? Well, it’s just a regular day at work. That’s because Russian [Orthodox] Christmas takes place about two weeks after the Catholic/Protestant one. Also, modern-day Russian Christmas is mostly devoid of everything associated with Christmas in non-Eastern Orthodox countries, save for the Birth of Jesus. And those typical Christmas trimmings? We get those for New Year’s celebrations! And then, after Orthodox Christmas, we have an Old New Year holiday❄!
Confused? Heard some of this or all of it before? Want to learn more? Already drunk on eggnog so don’t care either way? Here’s what you need to know to make sense of the Russian holiday season.
One of the best things about Russia’s Christmasized New Year’s is that it is a truly all-inclusive national celebration, in which people of all beliefs can partake. Thus, the holiday spirit permeates all spaces, public and private, and nobody stays indifferent or aggrieved by it. Also, most people get a 9-day vacation from December 31st through January 8th!
The discrepancies between when Christmas is celebrated in most countries vs. in a handful of Eastern European ones (Russia, Serbia, Macedonia, Georgia and Ukraine as well Jerusalem and parts of Greece) stem from Orthodox churches using Julian calendar for marking of religious dates, as opposed to the Gregorian calendar, which has been adopted by the rest of the Christian community around the world. What that means in practical terms, is that here most Christian holidays come 13 days later. Instead of December 25th, Russians celebrate Christmas on January 7th. By the way, in the 1700s that difference was 11 days, in 1800s – 12 days, and after 2100 that it will grow to 14 days, and the calendars will continue to slowly diverge thereafter. There was no change between 20th and 21st centuries (it stayed at 13 days for 200 years) because… leap years something-something, you can read more here.
The Soviet Union’s communist regime wasn’t keen on religion in any form. For some 70 years there were no official Christmas celebrations in this neck of the woods, though some continued semi-covertly in the few churches that managed to remain open. During that period, festivities and traditions widely associated with Christmas – feasts, decorated fir trees, gift-giving, ‘Santa’ – got transferred to the New Year’s celebrations. Nowadays, the eve of December 31st is, by far, the biggest holiday of the year.
Christmas became a public holiday in Russia once again 1991, but it is now a purely ecclesiastical event. Therefore, from this point on I’ll be talking about Russian New Year-related revelries and traditions, and how they compare to Western – particularly American – Christmas ones.
❄Old New Year will be covered in a separate post, as to not suffocate you with all that holiday spirit!
Whimsically decorated New Year’s trees are a must for Russian homes and cities. Yolki – that would be spruce or fir trees, in Russian – go up in front of nearly every theater, university, administrative building, shopping center, and in every square, not to mention every apartment. Before most of my fam relocated Stateside, we would have four in our house.
And under those trees? Gifts, of course! Yup, this is the time when commercialism and consumerism take over, and kids and adults alike get the biggest presents of the year.
Russia sees your Santa Clause and raises you Ded Moroz. Granfather Frost is old, mighty, and controls the elements. He can shake his sleeves and make it snow. He can strike the ground with his staff, and everything freezes over.
He plays with all the forest animals and brings gifts to children – and unlike Santa, he is not afraid to face them, appearing at carnivals and handing out the treats himself, with the help of…
Snegurochka. The Snow Maiden is Ded Moroz’s granddaughter and sidekick. She might have been made from snow – or not – and helps Ded Moroz distribute the gifts and liaise with children.
Ded Moroz and Snegurochka get around not in a sleigh with 12 flying reindeer with impossible-to-remember names, but in a troika, three horses harnessed side-by-side, an iconic symbol of Russia.
New Year’s Eve dinner is MAJOR. It is THE feast of the year. Everybody cooks way too much, and eats too much and drinks to much, and cries and hugs and kisses too much — and yet, somehow, not enough. Toasts abound: to the year that was and one that is coming, to family and friends, to Russia, to health, to love. You start out slow, bidding goodbye to the year that’s about to end at around 11pm or so on December 31st, and ramp it up till…well, basically until you crash in the morning hours of January 1st. “Soviet Champagne” is the drink of choice. Yup, that’s a brand, which now serves up a good dose of nostalgia on top of the bubbles.
Contrasting with the American Christmas table, which usually prominently features the main ‘meat’, be it a whole turkey or the Christmas ham, the Russian New Year’s table is all about zakuski. Zakuski have been extensively written about, and are often compared to starters (appetizers), but in fact they are more like Spanish tapas and are enjoyed throughout the meal, as starters, accouterments, and the feature dishes themselves. Two types of zakuski usually dominate the table: smoked fish (salmon, herring and such) and salads. Of course, in Russia, when you say ‘salad’, it means ‘less lettuce tossed with veggies’, and more ‘potatoes, egg and some kind of meat smothered in mayonnaise’. They’re more like heavy dips than salads, except there are no chips involved.
For the young’uns, winter holidays are all about attending as many Yolki as possible. You see, Yolka isn’t just a Russian word for spruce. It is also the name given to big New Year’s-themed parties and performances put on for the kids. The most coveted ones were always at the Kremlin Theater, but pretty much every theater, university, academy, kindergarten or school throws one. Tickets for the public ones (like at a theater) are sold at a regular box office, and those thrown at large organizations distribute provide discount tickets to the employees. For example, I went to many Yolki at the Oceanography Institute where my dad worked.
A Yolka is usually a two-part event. The first part is social and interactive: kids, dressed up either in costumes (animals and fictional characters are always popular) or in their fanciest threads, gather in a large hall or a ballroom with a big yolka tree in the center (that’s where the event gets its name). Ded Moroz & Snegurochka show up, play games, dance and sing with the children, give out small gifts and candy to the winners of various challenges, and then lead a khorovod (a circle dance and song) around the yolka. Below is the most popular New Year’s tune, called “В лесу родилась ёлочка”/“A little yolka was born in the forest,” to which many a khorovod has been performed. The yolochka (little yolka) in the song eventually gets cut down and taken to a Yolka event to bring joy to the children.
The second part of a Yolka is a full-on play, performed on stage. Usually the story follows an original script, which centers on Ded Moroz and Snegurochka, who must save the New Year, symbolized by the lighting of the yolka tree. With the help of various forest animals, winter spirits and fairy tale characters — and sometimes kids in the audience — Ded Moroz and Snegurochka must overcome some sort of a bad guy that’s trying to keep the New Year from coming to the land. There is magic and dancing and singing, and in the New Year comes. The tree sparkles, covered in lights brought about by the triumph of good over evil, by faith in magic and by children’s pure hearts.
I think the fact that yolka, the tree itself, is the dominant feature of the season’s festivities — much more so that Ded Moroz or the act of delivering presents — speaks to Russia’s very close attachment to its pagan past, which were rather druidic in nature.
As for for adults? This time of year is all about shopping, taking the kids to the Yolka, watching New Year’s Specials and classic New Year’s movies on TV, dinners and drinking, and, of course, the fireworks.