Easter is an important family holiday in Russia; often it is celebrated even by non-religious families. You can read all about historical and cultural Russian Easter traditions here, but as a traveler to Russia you will often not get to experience the big family celebration. As Russian Easter is on the Orthodox calendar, if you are there during Western Easter nothing much will be happening. About a week later, however, big celebrations will be going on. Here is how you can take part in them as a traveler:
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Go to Church
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 closed; in general, the streets of Russia will be very quiet. At Easter, everyone is with their families – and they are either 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 the Easter service.
There are many services that you can attend throughout the Easter holiday. A favorite, however, is the Saturday night service which literally lasts all night. On Saturday night, quite late (just before midnight), the congregation gathers. Many people bring Easter food to be blessed by the priests. Everyone lights a candle. At midnight, everyone walks around the church with their candle in a solemn procession to celebrate the Resurrection of Christ. Afterwards, the congregation heads inside for the service, which is very long. It lasts into the early hours of Sunday – and yes, many people do leave. This service attracts many non-believers because it is quite impressive and a very 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 – in fact, don’t talk loudly at all – and follow the rest of the congregation. Be forewarned, though: the “big” 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 and it can be difficult to get in.
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Most bakeries and supermarkets will sell Easter desserts such as Paska and Kulich. Go to the shops before they close for Easter holidays and try some of these amazing Russian Easter desserts – you won’t regret it.
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Decorate an Egg
This is an easy Easter tradition that you can replicate in your own home – or hostel or homestay if you feel up to it. Just boil an egg and decorate it with paint (you can also buy an egg-decorating kit at the shop)! You can eat them afterward or just take some photos and enjoy keeping them around for a while.
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Say the Right Words
If you do end up going to a church service, you will notice that everyone around you keeps repeating the same two phrases. Even if you don’t go to service, you will still hear these phrases around for a while after Easter (40 days after Easter, to be precise). Here are the two phrases and their meanings – if somebody says the first to you, it is considered polite to respond with the second:
Person A: Христос воскрес! [khrisTOS vosKRES] – Christ is risen!
Person B: Воистину воскрес! [voIStinu vosKRES] – Indeed he is risen!