Christmas in Russia is most widely celebrated on January 7. This is because the Russian Orthodox Church adheres to the Julian calendar, which is 13 days behind the Gregorian calendar. Preceding the Russian Orthodox Christmas, New Year's Day is on January 1 and is often considered the more important holiday.
It is also not uncommon for Russians to observe two Christmases and even two New Year's celebrations; the first Christmas is observed on December 25, and the second New Year's is observed on January 14. Any public trees—like the Christmas tree in Moscow's Red Square—serve as a symbol of the New Year.
Russian Christmas Religious Observances
During much of the 20th century as a Communist, atheist country, Russia was banned from publicly celebrating Christmas. Because so many Russians identified as atheists, the religious observance of Christmas faded out of fashion. However, since the Soviet Union fell in 1991, Russians are increasingly returning to religion, primarily Russian Orthodoxy. The number of people celebrating Christmas as a religious holiday continues to grow.
Some of the Orthodox Christian traditions observed in Russia mimic Christmas traditions seen in other parts of Eastern Europe. As is the custom in Poland, in Russia, people will cover their floors and tables in hay as a way to represent baby Jesus's manger. A white tablecloth is then laid out to symbolize the clothes Jesus was swaddled in. Over the holiday season, Russians may also fast; this fast is to be broken at the appearance of the first star in the sky on Christmas Eve.
A Christmas church service, which happens the night of Christmas Eve, is attended by members of the Orthodox church. Even President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev have begun attending these solemn, beautiful services in Moscow.
The Christmas Eve meal concludes the Nativity Fast; it is typically meatless and can be made up of twelve dishes to represent the twelve apostles. Lenten bread, dipped in honey and garlic, is shared by all members of the family at this festive gathering. Kutya is a concoction of grains and poppy seeds sweetened with honey; it is served as one of the main dishes of the Christmas feast. Vegetarian-style borscht, or solyanka, is a salty stew that may also be served along with salads, sauerkraut, dried fruit, potatoes, and beans.
The Christmas day meal may feature a main course of pork, goose, or other meat dish. This is accompanied by a variety of side dishes such as aspic, stuffed pies, and desserts in various forms.
The Russian Santa Claus
The Russian Santa Claus is named Ded Moroz, or Father Frost. On New Year's Eve, he places presents for children under the New Year tree (as opposed to a Christmas tree). He is accompanied by Snegurochka, a snow maiden said to be his granddaughter. He carries a staff; dons a red, blue, silver, or gold coat lined with white fur; and wears valenki, traditional felt boots made of wool. Unlike Santa, Ded Moroz is tall and thin—and instead of traveling via sleigh, he gets around Russia by taking a troika, a vehicle led by three horses.
To see Ded Moroz for yourself, head to any major Russian city over the holiday season. For a truly spectacular Christmas celebration with Old Man Frost, check out Moscow's Russian Winter Festival, where you can feast on bagels and jam, goggle at gigantic ice sculptures, and ride a troika.
Svyatki—Russian Christmastide—follows Christmas and is a two-week period closely associated with the pagan traditions of fortune telling and caroling. Svyatki lasts until January 19, when Epiphany is celebrated. This day marks Jesus's baptism, and people honor the occasion by diving into the country's icy rivers and lakes.
Christmas Gifts From Russia
If you are looking for Christmas gifts from Russia, consider buying nesting dolls and Russian lacquer boxes. In Moscow, you can find them in Izmaylovo Market, or in Revolution Square during the Russian Winter Festival. You should also be able to find them in most—if not all—souvenir shops throughout the country. Don't have space in your carry-on? You can also purchase these beloved gifts online.