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Christmas in Russia
January 6, 2013, 4:20 pm

Peope take part in a celebration on Orthodox Christmas at Sokolniky Park, Moscow. [Xinhua]

Peope take part in a celebration on Orthodox Christmas at Sokolniky Park, Moscow. [Xinhua]

Roofs covered with snow, sounds of Christmas carols, lights shimmering around the city – that’s a traditional picture of Christmas festivities in the European capitals, towns and villages. The entire Catholic world is celebrating one of the most important of Christian holidays at the end of the year – on December 25. In Orthodox Russia it is different, especially after the country lived through the period of forced atheism while under Soviet power.

With the same meaning of the day, Russians celebrate Christmas on January 7. For the Orthodox, Christmas was always less important than Easter, bu still one of the most cherished days of the calendar. In Tsarist Russia where the Church had much influence that was the holiday people celebrated and loved, attaching sacral and secular importance to the day. That is why Christmas has so many traditions, such as the traditional service, the 40-day lent preceding the day, carols, as well as pagan fortune-telling and dressing.

However, the importance attributed to the day has diminished. It was the Soviet Union that slowly eroded the passion and sacral rituals of Christmas in Russia. Under Soviet rule religion was banned and people were encouraged to celebrate New Year instead. So many Christmas traditions such as decorating a fur tree and giving presents, turned into those of New Year. 20 years have now passed since the collapse of the USSR and people are slowly coming back to church following canons and religious rites.  But New Year is still the most significant holiday of the year in Russia.

“Nowadays we are living with the relics of the Soviet past and New Year celebration is the USSR legacy. Inurement to the Soviet traditions was successful because of the long period of time that the Soviets were in power, here is the result,” – says Daniil Fedyakov, deacon of Moscow diocese.

“To erode religious celebrations the Soviets have also invented a number of new public holidays that have slowly replaced sacral days. February 23 – the Day of the Defender of Motherland, March 8 – International Women’s Day, were invented instead of the traditional Church holidays, so that people have public holidays not on the sacral days the Church celebrates.”

In today’s Russia Christmas is the only religious holiday that is public as well. While in Europe Easter and some other religious feasts are official days off, in Russia this is not the case. Being a national holiday Christmas falls within the period Russia has winter vacation – almost 10 days that people are off. In 2005 the government introduced long winter holidays.

The difference in dates between the Orthodox and Catholic Christmas is explained easily: the Russian Orthodox Church uses the old Julian calendar for religious celebration days, which is 13 days behind the Gregorian calendar. This is again rooted in history – when the Soviets decided to change to the Gregorian Calendar, the Russian Orthodox Church refused and continued using the Julian one. That has also given birth to another unofficial public holiday – The Old New Year which is celebrated on January 13. The day is not deemed as a significant holiday, but nowadays it is a reason and time to come together for celebrations with those who were away on December 31 – January 1.

An illuminated State Department Store (GUM) at the Red Square in Moscow. [Getty Images]

An illuminated State Department Store (GUM) at the Red Square in Moscow. [Getty Images]

In the past two decades Christmas has been gaining more and more influence, and not just the holiday, but the Church overall. Now that religion is not prohibited in Russia, people practice religion and attend services.

“Now there are many more people that come to Church, and the best proof of that is the queue to the Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow when the Belt of the Virgin Mary relic arrived there from Greece – just think of that, about a million brave low temperatures and 5-kilometer long line to venerate the relic. People have been waiting for days, not hours to see that,” – says Daniiil Fedyakov.

The traditions of carol-singing and fortune telling no longer exist in big cities and are typical for peripheries mostly. The way Christmas was celebrated in Russia before the Bolsheviks has transformed drastically, and very few do that in the way it was done in the Tsarist Russia.

But one thing remains obvious – despite the ordeals religion had to go through in Russia, the largest part of its population remains religious and cherishes the sacral meaning of the holiday. And nowadays the Church enjoys its popularity growth with the Christmas service broadcasted by the country’s federal TV channels and normally attended by the President and Prime Minister with their families.

Daria Chernyshova



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