Christmas in Russia is celebrated on January 7, according to the Orthodox calendar. Though the date of Russian Christmas was always the same the traditions have been going through plenty of changes during the past 200 years.
Prior to Christmas Day, there is Christmas Eve, which marks the start of an old Slavic holiday, Svyatki, in which young women used a mirror and candles to invoke the image of their future husbands. Like going to church, fortune-telling on Christmas Eve is again becoming popular in Russia. After the Russian Revolution of 1917, the Bolsheviks banned Christmas celebrations. Many Christmas traditions, such as decorating a fir tree and giving presents, turned into New Year’s traditions. Christmas became an official holiday and a non-labor day in Russia in 1991. It began regaining popularity only recently, partially because Russian leaders, starting with Vladimir Putin, annually attend a Christmas liturgy.
People in Russia celebrate Christmas Day with activities such as having a family dinner, attending a Christmas liturgy and visiting relatives and friends. There is a 40-day Lent preceding Christmas Day, when practicing Christians do not eat any meat. The Lent period ends with the first star in the night sky on January 6 – a symbol of Jesus Christ’s birth. Many Orthodox Christians go to the church to attend a Christmas liturgy that evening.
In the traditional Russian Christmas, special prayers are said and people fast, sometimes for 39 days, until January 6th Christmas Eve, when the first evening star in appears in the sky. Then begins a twelve course supper in honor of each of the twelve apostles – fish, beet soup or Borsch, cabbage stuffed with millet, cooked dried fruit and much more. Hay is spread on the floors and tables to encourage horse feed to grow in the coming year and people make clucking noises to encourage their hens to lay eggs. On Christmas Day, hymns and carols are sung. People gather in churches which have been decorated with the usual Christmas trees or Yelka, flowers and colored lights.
Babushka is a traditional Christmas figure who distributes presents to children. Her name means grandmother and the legend is told that she declined to go with the wise men to see Jesus because of the cold weather. However, she regretted not going and set off to try and catch up, filling her basket with presents. She never found Jesus, and that is why she visits each house, leaving toys for good children. The role of Father Christmas was played by Dedushka Moroz or Grandfather Christmas.
The common symbols of Orthodox Christmas are a decorated fir tree, a star (such as the first star in the sky or the star on top of the Christmas tree) and baby Jesus.