Russian Traditions, Holidays, and Festivals

Laquered dolls for sale at a tourist shop
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Russian traditions are a part of the colorful Russian culture that attracts millions of visitors to the country each year.

Russians still celebrate pagan holidays as well as the religious holidays of Christmas and Easter. The holiday of Maslenitsa (Shrovetide), for example, has roots in Paganism and is an age-old tradition that has been passed along from generation to generation.

Russian holidays include such unique celebrations as Cosmonaut's Day and Protector of the Motherland Day, while the long list of Russian traditions is full of exciting, and sometimes strange, customs from bathing in ice water at Epiphany to Ded Moroz's appearance on New Year's Eve.

If you are visiting Russia during one of the events or holidays, utilize this guide to understand the traditions and join in the fun! 

01 of 09

Russia's New Year

Sakhalin, Yuzhno Sakhalin, Russia, Ice figures in the main square for New Years celebrations
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The majority of Russians celebrate New Year's Day with the rest of the world on January 1st. But, there is an older New Year's Day tradition on January 14th that many in Russia also celebrate. 

Russia's New Year celebrations include the lighting of the New Year's tree and a visit from Ded Moroz (or Grandfather Frost), the Russian version of Santa Claus. Traditionally shown as a tall and slender older gentleman, Ded Moroz, dressed in embroidered garb, cuts an elegant figure on Christmas cards wishing the receiver a happy New Year.

What those in the West would call a Christmas Tree is considered a New Year's Tree in Russia, and because the first Russian New Year precedes Christmas in Russia (which takes place on January 7), this tree is left up in honor of both holidays.

02 of 09

Christmas

Celebrations at Palace Square
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Christmas in Russia occurs on January 7th, according to the Russian Orthodox calendar. Eclipsed by New Year's celebrations, Russian Christmas is somewhat less important than it is in other Eastern European nations.

Christmas is a time for visiting family, attending church services, and enjoying a Christmas feast. During much of the 20th century as a Communist, atheist country, Russians were not able to publicly celebrate Christmas so the practice faded into the background. 

However, now Russians are returning to religion, primarily Russian Orthodoxy, and the number of people celebrating Christmas as a religious holiday continues to grow.

03 of 09

Sviatki, Russian Christmastide

Man swimming in iceberg glacier
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Sviatki, or Svyatki, falls between January 7th (Orthodox Christmas) and January 19th (Epiphany).

Christmastide is a special time for Christians. In Russia, where Christianity was suppressed, the old traditions like fortune telling, which pre-dated the adoption of Christian beliefs in Russia, are part of remembering old customs. Caroling is common with songs often sung by costumed singers. 

The most devout Russians end this religious period on Epiphany by taking a dip in the icy water of a river or stream, said to be bestowed with magical powers and symbolizing of the baptism of Jesus.

04 of 09

Maslenitsa

Maslenitsa Holiday in Russia
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Maslenitsa is akin to Russia's Mardis Gras. Children play games, grandmothers cook up big stacks of pancakes, and cities hold festivals during which the effigy of "Lady Maslenitsa" is burned to welcome springtime weather and the return of the sun.

Maslenitsa week began as a pagan sun ritual and has since been absorbed into the Eastern Orthodox religion. Maslenitsa serves many purposes. Maslenitsa signals the exit of winter and heralds the coming of spring.  As a part of pre-Lenten celebrations, it is also like Mardi-gras, a time for feasting and having fun. 

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05 of 09

Easter

easter eggs in a tupperware
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Orthodox Russians celebrate Easter according to the Eastern calendar, and it can occur in April or May.

Russians celebrate Easter with decorated eggs, special foods, and customs like thoroughly cleaning one's home. The Easter church service begins the night before the holiday with candles lighting the church until dawn breaks and bells announce the arrival of Easter.

Easter eggs and foods are an essential part of Russian Easter customs. Eggs were looked upon as fertility symbols during pre-Christian times, and after the adoption of Christianity were seen as a symbol of renewal. 

06 of 09

Victory Day

Moscow Celebrates Victory Day 70th Anniversary
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May 9th is Victory Day, a holiday for remembering service members and Russia's participation in World War II. The day is typically marked with parades, with the military parade on Red Square the best known.

It's a holiday where most businesses close, so many people attend a military parade and watch the fireworks at night on Victory Day. Veterans wear their medals as they go to the parade or an event organized by a local veterans organization.

Another tradition is to give flowers, usually red carnations, to veterans on the street and to lay wreaths at war memorial sites. 

07 of 09

Russian Winter Festival

Kremlin Guard At Russian Winter Festival
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Winter in Russia is long and hard, but Russians know how to inject fun into even sub-zero weather.

The Russian Winter Festival begins in December and continues into January. The winter festival isn't limited to Moscow, although it is Russia's largest, as cities across Russia combat the darkness of winter by hosting winter-festival-related events.

The Winter Festival encompasses Russian Christmas, New Year, and Svyatki. There is so much going on that its an ideal time to visit Moscow or one of the larger Russian cities.

In Moscow, events at Izmailovo Park and the more central Revolution Square feature performances of traditional Russian song and dance, games, crafts, food, and more. 

08 of 09

Russian Name Days

Russian castles
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Some Russian traditions, like Name Days, can be experienced year-round.

Russian Name Days have a Christian origin and are a part of Russian Culture. When a person is named after a saint, he or has the opportunity to celebrate the day appointed for the saint in addition to a birthday. The Name Day is also called the “Angel Day.”

In many countries, the Name Day tradition has faded in importance and the person's birthday is seen as the main day to celebrate. In countries such as Hungary, however, Name Days may continue to be as important as birthdays.

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09 of 09

Russian Wedding Traditions

Russian wedding
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June is the traditional month for weddings in Russia. Brides seek out the fanciest dress their budget can afford while Russian grooms arrange for an appointment at a civil office where the ceremony and marriage registration takes place. 

Friends and family members toss flower petals, coins, and sometimes release butterflies to wish the couple good luck. Before the new couple departs, it’s traditional for the groom to sweep the bride up in his arms and kiss her in front of all assembled.

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