Easter is an important holiday in Russia, and it is even celebrated by non-religious families across the country. However, Russian Easter traditions differ from those found in America and elsewhere around the world, and the holiday is often celebrated at a different time than western Christian nations.
Russian Easter is on the Orthodox calendar, which means it is likely to be later than Western Easter and typically occurs in late April. As a traveler to Russia, you may not often get a chance to experience the family aspect of the holiday, but you can still find several ways to immerse yourself in the culture during your trip.
From preparing for the holiday during Holy Week and attending a Saturday night mass at a Russian Orthodox church to decorating red Easter eggs symbolizing the blood of Christ, there are many ways to enjoy the holiday in Russia this year.
Prepare for the Holiday During Holy Week
The week before Russian Orthodox Easter is known as Holy Week and is traditionally a time when families across the country prepare their homes for the coming holiday. Whether you're staying in a hotel, home, or hostel, you can start your holiday celebration by getting your space ready for Easter.
Special services and traditions take place each night of Holy Week starting with Palm Sunday the week before Russian Orthodox Easter. On this day, churches bless palm branches that symbolize their Messiah has come and Russian families feast on fish to represent the body of Christ.
Matins of Holy Monday (Sunday night service), Tuesday (Holy Monday Night), and Wednesday (Holy Tuesday Night) services all focus on separate parts of scripture related to Easter and the Resurrection. Thursday is known as "Clean Thursday," when families traditionally tidy the home and decorate Easter eggs.
Matins of Holy Friday, which has its service on Holy Thursday night, is one of the longest services of the year and features the Reading of the 12 Passion Gospels; on Friday afternoon, the Vespers of Holy Friday are performed.
Decorate an Egg
Decorating eggs—like in America—is an easy Easter tradition you can replicate in your own home, hostel, or homestay: simply boil an egg and decorate it with food coloring. Russians typically color eggs on "Clean Thursday" of Holy Week.
In Russia, Easter eggs are also believed to protect crops, keep cattle healthy, and ward off evil spirits. While traditionally painted red to symbolize the blood and passion of Christ, other colors and fabrics are often used to decorate hard-boiled eggs.
After you're done coloring your egg, you can use it for decoration, eat it, or hold onto it for good luck throughout your travels—just be sure to get rid of it before it starts to go bad.
Attend a Russian Easter Mass
Just like in the Western world, you will not find many Easter celebrations on the streets—it is not really a time for parades and large crowds. Shops are usually closed, and the streets of Russia will be very quiet in general. At Easter, everyone is with their families—at home or at church.
Whether you have seen an Orthodox church service before or not, it is definitely worth it to see a Russian Orthodox Easter service once in your life. Beautifully elaborate, hauntingly somber and yet at times uplifting and hopeful, it is an amazing experience to see.
There are many services that you can attend throughout the Easter holiday. A favorite, however, is the Saturday night service that literally lasts all night. On Saturday night, congregations gather just before midnight at churches across the country.
During the Saturday night service, many people bring Easter food to be blessed by the priests, and everyone lights a candle that attends. At midnight, everyone walks around the church with their candle in a solemn procession to celebrate the Resurrection of Christ. Afterward, the congregation heads inside for the service, which is very long. It lasts into the early hours of Sunday. This service attracts many non-believers because it is quite impressive as well as an interesting and beautiful experience.
You can go into basically any church and nobody will question why you are there as long as you stay quiet and respectful. Don’t talk loudly in English and follow the rest of the congregation.
Keep in mind that the bigger churches—like the Church of the Savior of the Spilt Blood in St. Petersburg and the Moscow Kremlin cathedrals—get extremely crowded and full. There is usually a heavy police presence at these venues, and it can be difficult to get inside for the official Saturday night service.
Say the Right Words
Whether you attend a religious service or you're just wandering around the streets of major cities across the country, you'll likely run into a few common phrases during your Easter trip.
In fact, two such phrases are used up to 40 days after the holiday as a greeting. One person will typically begin a conversation with "Christ is Risen" (Христос воскрес), and the other will respond "Indeed He is Risen" (Воистину воскрес). I somebody says the first to you, it is considered polite to respond with the second:
Sample Paskha and Other Easter Foods
One of the best ways to truly experience Russian Orthodox Easter during your trip is to enjoy traditional foods prepared for the holiday. Since religious observers also follow the traditions of Lent, Easter is also a celebration of the ability to enjoy a number of foods again.
Additionally, many customary Easter foods carry symbolic meaning. For instance, ham or lamb symbolizes joy and abundance through Christ, and grated horseradish with red beets symbolizes the Passion of Christ.
Most bakeries and supermarkets will also sell Easter desserts such as kulich and paskha (Easter cake). Go to the shops before they close for Easter holidays to try some of these amazing Russian Easter desserts.