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A Brief History of Russian Christmases

written by: Eric W. Vogt • edited by: Rebecca Scudder • updated: 11/18/2012

Christmas in Russia has undergone many transformations over the past century. Under the Czars, old customs flourished in an uninterrupted tradition. Under the USSR, they were marginalized and now there is a revival going on. Learn a bit about Russian Christmas here.

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    Under the USSR, all religious activities were suspended in Russia. Yet, to witness the revival of Christmas celebrations and the rejuvenation of old customs, one can only conclude that the ban was not entirely successful. If it had been, the Russian people would have had to look to exiles to learn their old ways, and this is clearly not the case.

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    Orthodox Customs and Pre-Christian Traditions

    Russian Christmas is always blessed with snow. The beauty of the snow-laden Russian countryside in many places seems to have jumped from a postcard. The Russians are proud of their Orthodox customs and comfortable about the way in which they, like all Christian societies, have incorporated certain pre-Christian traditions that are associated with that time of the year.

    Orthodox observers in Russia abstain from meat for 39 days before the 12 days of Christmas, eating meat only when the first star appears in the sky on Christmas Eve. The festivities begin in earnest at that time, since they also abstain from social gatherings (parties) during the 39-day period of fasting.

    Christmas corresponds to a period of the year known as sviatki, a time when pre-Christian Russians feared supernatural forces. They would attempt to divine their intentions or placate them with rituals, many of which have been preserved in the foods eaten at this time of the year.

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    Games, Feasting & Music

    The Russian Christmas season is characterized by guessing games (gadanie), games of fortune-telling, carols (kolyiadki), feasting on traditional The Nutcracker foods and, of course, the solemn, yet joyous religious services. One food that is noteworthy is kutya, a type of sweet porridge made from wheat berries, honey and poppy seeds. The origin of the recipe is lost in the mists of time. It is said to have the magical power to summon ancestors. Eaten from a common bowl, it is also a symbol of unity.

    The nineteenth century was a golden age for many Russian Christmas customs, music and art. One only need recall The Nutcracker, Tolstoy's War and Peace (in which many Christmas customs are found) and The Snow Maiden to see what contributions Russian artists have made to many Christians world-wide as they celebrate this season.