While the Western world has already unwrapped their gifts and eaten too many cookies during the Christmas holiday, Orthodox Christians still have a few days to prepare.
The Russian Orthodox Church celebrates religious holidays according to the Julian calendar, which pre-dates the Gregorian calendar, so Christmas is celebrated on January 7th.
After the Russian Revolution of 1917, the Bolsheviks banned Christmas celebrations. Many Christmas traditions, such as decorating a fir tree and giving presents, turned into New Year's traditions. Christmas became an official holiday and a non-labor day in Russia in 1991. It began regaining popularity only recently, partially because Russian leaders, starting with Vladimir Putin, annually attend a Christmas liturgy. However, the New Year still remains the more festive of the two celebrations.
How Russians Celebrate
People in Russia celebrate Christmas Day with activities such as having a family dinner, attending a special liturgy and visiting relatives and friends. There is a 40-day Lent preceding Christmas Day, when practicing Christians do not eat any meat. The Lent period ends with the first star in the night sky on January 6th – a symbol of Jesus Christ's birth. Many Orthodox Christians go to the church to attend a Christmas Eve liturgy.
The first star also signals the start of the Christmas Eve dinner, known as the Holy Supper. This ancient tradition can be traced back to pre-Christian times, though it is now a religious celebration honoring the birth and death of Jesus Christ. Twelve meatless dishes are prepared to represent the twelve apostles who shared the last meal with Christ. After dinner, young Russian girls engage in fortune telling traditions to learn more about their future husbands.
Symbols of the Russian Orthodox Christmas include Ded Moroz and Saint Nicholas. Ded Moroz is Russia’s Father Christmas or the Russian Santa Claus who delivers gifts to children at New Year celebrations. He’s usually accompanied by his granddaughter, the beautiful Snow Maiden. Saint Nicholas, who is the patron saint of Russia, sailors and children, represents the kind, good, and giving spirit of Christmas.
Other symbols include the white cloth used on dinner tables to represent purity and the cloth that baby Jesus was wrapped in. Straw may be placed on these tables to symbolize the simplicity of the place where Jesus was born. Also, candles are often lit to represent the light of Christ and the festive Christmas meal represents the end of fasting.
National Vacation Time
Orthodox Christmas is a national holiday in Russia so schools and most businesses are closed on January 7th. If Christmas Day falls on a weekend, the non-labor day moves to the following Monday. Russian authorities may sometimes declare a national vacation from January 1st to 10th due to the close proximity of New Year's, Christmas and the weekends between these two holidays.
The Old New Year
The New Year is another holiday often celebrated twice in Russia and Ukraine. The Orthodox New Year, also known as the Old New Year, is still informally observed on January 13th/14th. Usually not as festive as the New New Year on December 31st/January 1st, it serves as a nostalgic ending to the season with large meals, singing, and celebratory drinking. This holiday is interesting as it combines secular traditions of bringing in the New Year with Christian Orthodox customs of Christmastide, or the Twelve Days of Christmas.
Everyone should experience this season in Russia or Ukraine at least once in their lifetime; especially gentlemen who are dating Russian women online. The magical celebrations last several weeks with delicious homemade food, towering tinseled trees, and friendly, welcoming people.