The build-up to Christmas in the UK is something to be marvelled at. As soon as Halloween is done out come the Christmas trees, music and markets. However, being on your year abroad, in a country that doesn’t really celebrate it in a conventional sense, it is fascinating to see how different Russians do it.
Christmas is cancelled
Firstly, Russians don’t celebrate Christmas on December 25th, like most people in the West do. During the Soviet times, Christmas was actually banned, and instead New Year was the big celebration. However, after 1991, people started to celebrate it, not on December 25th but on January 7th. The reason for this is because the Russian Orthodox Church uses the old 'Julian' calendar for religious celebration days. Therefore, the build-up to Christmas in Russia is more discreet and less in-your-face.
The first Russian celebration is the New Year. Having come from a Russian/Belarusian family, I know what this entails. Lots of singing, dancing and drinking. Large families in tiny flats. Whenever I celebrate New Year’s with my family in the UK, we have lots of company, including aunties, uncles, grandparents, cousins and just friends. We sit down and have dinner, which includes a toast every 5 minutes, and Russians love to make speeches so these toasts can last upwards of 15 minutes. After our meal, we often watch traditional Soviet films played only on New Years like ‘The Irony of Fate’ or ‘Carnival Night’. Then when the clock strikes 12, we celebrate the New Year, quickly followed by President Putin’s New Year’s message.
The next celebration for Russians is Orthodox Christmas on January 7th. Similar to Christmas in the UK, the Russians have their own version of Santa Claus called ‘Ded Moroz’ which translates to ‘Grandfather Frost’, who gives presents to good children. The only real difference is that Russians celebrate Christmas a whole 2 weeks after the West does.
The New Year that keeps on giving
Now, you’re probably thinking that’s it for celebrations. They celebrate New Year’s and Christmas, like us, albeit the other way around. However, that’s not it. 2 weeks after New Year’s, the Russian celebrate the ‘Old New Year’, the New Year that would have originally been if the Russian State stuck with the old Julian Calendar. Since all religious holidays were banned in the Soviet Union, the only big-deal winter holiday that Russians had left was the New Year’s. But Russians love holidays too much to give up a day of celebration! To compensate for the loss of Christmas, Russians celebrated the Old New Year as well as the New Year on January 1st. Although some very religious people may try to celebrate January 14th as the real New Year, most Russians the Old New Year is just a great a way to prolong the New Year’s celebrations and wish all the wishes they didn’t have time for on December 31st.
Baptism of ice
However, in January, the holidays just keep on coming. A commonly celebrated one on January 19th is called Kreshcheniye, or what we call Epiphany. This crazy day often involves people at below 0 temperatures jumping into frozen lakes or plunge pools as part of their yearly ‘Baptism’ (though I am glad that I miss this one out). Finally, to end the festive season, the Russians celebrate New Year for the third and last time. Specifically, Chinese New Year on January 25th. Russian people have always been part Asia and part Europe, therefore their culture is a fascinating mix between the West and the East.
The Russian festive season is something to behold, and I am incredibly lucky to have experienced Russian-style celebrations. Drinking, dancing, singing; it’s a time to bring people together, to have a good send-off for the old year and a good start to the new. If you know anyone who is Russian, try and get an invite for their next New Year get-together, because the Russians know how to party!