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  • Writer's pictureJody Ferguson

Christmas in Russia

Christmas in Russia (or in any Orthodox Christian nation) takes place on January 6-7. The reason for the discrepancy is an old argument about calendars that dates back centuries. When Russian people celebrate Christmas, it is very much a religious occasion. People go to church on the evening of the 6th and pray. Of course, a huge feast and celebration always follows, as family members gather around tables groaning with the weight of food. Twelve dishes are served to honor the twelve apostles. Vodka is very much a part of the occasion, as well. On January 7, people celebrate at home, often sleeping in after a late Christmas night vigil at the church.

The real celebration at the end of the year in Russia, the one we would most equate with Christmas in the West, is New Year’s Eve. People begin congregating in the afternoon of the 31st, also around a table brimming with dishes such as roasted duck or chicken, red and black caviar on thin crêpes, meat and vegetable pies (piroshky), Kholodets (a jellied beef aspic dish served with horseradish), ‘Herring under fur’—a fish-beet salad combination, Olivier salad (a variation of potato salad), pickled vegetables, and of course, loaves of black bread. Vodka toasts ringing out the old year and bringing in the new year are ubiquitous. Every family also imbibes in champagne. Naps are taken at the table or on sofas, a mere respite in the hours long celebrations. Kids are told that Santa Claus (Ded Moroz) will deposit gifts New Year’s evening under a (usually) small tree.

In the evening, after the gifts are opened, families and friends settle in to watch a beloved movie, most often the comedy The Irony of Fate, or one of many televised New Year’s Eve programs with singers, dancers, comedy, etc. In more recent decades it has become a tradition for the Russian president (or before 1990, the Soviet premier) to give a speech on New Year’s Eve. Few people give it much attention, because by this time, the mind and body have become inundated with rich food and alcohol. But I was in Moscow celebrating with my wife and son in 2000 when Boris Yeltsin announced that he was resigning and making way for Vladimir Putin. That certainly stood out for everyone. This year’s address was also somewhat somber, as Putin outlined the dangers of the current pandemic in his speech.

People venture outside in the cold briefly around midnight to set off small fireworks. But mostly, people stay in the warm indoors. A feast of leftovers continues the next day. And yes, with more vodka. The hair of the dog, as they say. People need a few days to recover for the January 6 Christmas celebration, which is much less focused on sating and inebriation, and more on the birth of Christ, which many in the West have begun to forget.

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