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Orthodox Christmas

Orthodox Christmas 2018 and 2019

YearDateDayHoliday
20187 JanSunOrthodox Christmas
8 JanMonOrthodox Christmas
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20197 JanMonOrthodox Christmas
8 JanTueOrthodox Christmas
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A large majority of Russia’s 140 million people identify as members of the Russian Orthodox Church, which calculates the date of Christmas based on the Julian Calendar instead of the Gregorian Calendar used in the West. The result is that Russians observe Christmas 13 days later than those in non-Orthodox countries, on January 7th. A very small number of Latin-rite Catholics in Russia keep Christmas on December 25th, but virtually everyone else celebrates it on January 7th.

After the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, Christmas was banned and only New Year’s Day (13th of January) was observed. Today, however, the celebration of Christmas has been restored. Many religiously minded Russians begin to “prepare” for Christmas 40 days before it comes, during the Nativity Fast. Fasting from meats is used as a form of self-denial and preparation to be in a truly acceptable “Christmas spirit.”

On January 6th, Orthodox Christmas Eve, when the first star is seen in the night sky, the fast ends for many. That first star is thought to sym bolise Christ’s birth, as did the star that the Wise Men followed to the Christ Child so long ago, according to the Bible. Many, however, continue Lent into Christmas Eve. They eat “sochivo,” a porridge mixed with honey, poppy seeds, dried fruits, walnuts, and other ingredients. Often, sochivo is eaten by families from a single bowl, which is symbolic of unity. It is also traditional to fling some sochivo onto the ceiling, hoping it will stick, which is thought to be a sign of good luck.

Whether or not meats and fish are eaten, almost all Russians enjoy a large Christmas Eve feast. Besides sochivo, other foods traditionally consumed include: beetroot soup, vegetable pies, salads with mushrooms, tomatoes, or potatoes, sauerkraut, cranberries, fried onions or mushrooms, and buckwheat porridge. Dessert might include such things as fresh fruits, dried fruits, fruit pies, gingerbread, nuts, and cookies. At meal’s end, a special drink called “vzvar” (“boil up”) is drunk. It is very sweet, being made from dried fruits and honey diffused into boiling water.

When the meal is over, many will say seasonally appropriate prayers concerning the Christ Child and the meaning of His coming into the world. They will then go to church to take part in a midnight service, watching for the dawn of Christmas Morning. After returning home, families frequently stay up doing the dishes from their Christmas meal until four or five o’clock in the morning.

If visiting Russia for Christmas, there will be many activities to take part in and many interesting traditions to learn of. Below, we give a few ideas of how to make the most of your Yuletide stay in the land of Russia:

  • Learn about Russian Christmas legends. First, read the story of Babushka. “Babushka” is the Russian word for “grandmother,” and in the traditional story called Babushka, an old lady encounters the Three Wise Men but ends up being too late to meet baby Jesus. She ends up very sad at having missed him, and she is said to be “still looking for him today.” A second legend is that of “Grandfather Frost,” a figure who looks suspiciously like Santa Claus except he wears a blue suit instead of a red one. In fact, Grandfather Frost was invented based on Santa after the Soviets banned Santa Claus along with Christmas in general.
  • Attend a Russian Christmas Eve midnight service or watch one of the many that are broadcast on public television. You may even wish to visit Saint Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow’s Red Square for the service to admire the beautiful architecture. Other cathedrals in Russia include: Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior, Saint Nicholas Cathedral in Murmansk, and the Cathedral of Our Lady of Kazan in Volgograd.
  • Attend the Russian Winter Festival, which runs from December 25th until January 5th annually. There will be Russian music and dancing, folk plays, sleigh rides through the snow, and more. You can find such celebrations in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Novgorod, and elsewhere.

Christmas is kept somewhat differently in Russia and among Eastern Orthodox Christians and is kept on a different day as well. Visiting Russia for Christmas and Christmas Eve gives opportunity to learn of another culture, while enjoying the food and festivities.