Episode #17 Russian winter holidays
Do you wanna know how to make your winter holidays last longer? How to start celebrating in December and be merry and bright till basically the middle of January? Do you wanna celebrate Christmas again? This time without family drama? Do you want to have an epic New Year and then another smaller one? Do you like my sales pitch voice?
Warning! This episode contains explicit language and my personal feelings and opinions
I’m not kidding though! You totally can do all those things! All you have to do is come to Russia for winter holidays! And there’s no need to skip Christmas at home, by the way! Real holidays in Russia start with New Year! So if you arrive, say, on the 29th of December you will have enough time to settle in and get ready for the 31st of December, New Year’s Eve and also the main Russian winter holiday
I’ll start with it and then explain about Christmas and the second New Year, ok?
Why New Year and not Christmas?
Russia has been a predominantly Christian country since very early Medieval times, so why isn’t Christmas the main holiday? Because of the Soviet Union and communism. Their ideology was anti-religious, so Christmas was banned in the 1920-s. But I guess too many people associated that time of year with holidays. So in 1930s all the trappings of Christmas were transferred to the New Year celebrations and it became the most important winter holiday but now without any religious bits.
And 70+ years of the Soviet Union were enough to make New Year traditions stick. Now it’s a secular holiday celebrated by everyone, which in a multicultural country is actually very useful. And Christmas is for Christians.
If you think replacing one holiday with another that suits the current political powers better is wrong and who even does shit like that, I’ll remind you that Christmas was also moved specifically to coincide with winter solstice for symbolic reasons. So… everybody does that.
What do we do for New Year’s then?
Well, in modern consumerism-oriented culture it all starts in the beginning of December when New Year decorations (which are absolutely the same as Christmas decorations but without Nativity scenes) are installed everywhere and the endless marketing campaigns try to make you buy more shit cause it’s the end of the year sales!
Closer to the end of the month New Year parties begin. Kids go to special New Year performances. They are called Ёлка/Yolka. That is literally translated as a fur-tree or a spruce tree. Which along with a pine tree is the most common type that’s used as a Christmas or in our case New Year tree. I mean it gets decorated and everything.
At those parties kiddies sing holiday songs, dance, play games and watch a performance. It can be a stage performance or an interactive one, it really depends on a place where you take the kid to.
The most important character in those performances (although that doesn’t mean he gets the most stagetime) is always Дед Мороз/Ded Moroz. Who is obviously our version of Santa Claus but not exactly. His name is translated as Grandpa Frost and while there are elements of Saint Nicolas to his personality, he has much deeper pagan roots.
In Episode #13 of this very podcast I told three old Russian fairy-tales. They are weird and slightly creepy as all proper folk-tales are, so go listen to them if you like that sort of thing.
One of those tales is called Морозко/Morozko. And the titular character is an old man associated with winter who has mystical powers and bestows gifts upon those he likes. Sounds familiar?
Morozko is an ancient Slavic folklore character, he is the personification of one of the nature’s… elements, so to speak – Frost
So Grandpa Frost of children’s New Year parties has some fascinating background. He also looks a bit differently from Santa. White hair and long white beard are the same but he has a much longer coat, usually floor-length. It can be red, or blue or white or silver. And there are often pretty patterns on it. And Grandpa Frost also has a staff. So… your basic Gandalf the white, but with a much better coat and no hobbits.
The Snow Maiden
Instead of hobbits he has a granddaughter called Снегурочка/Snegurochka. Her name can’t be translated literally but it has the word снег/sneg – snow as a root.
Now that is a mostly Soviet invention. She is a folk character but she has never been a part of Christmas or New year customs before 1930s.
There is a folk tale about her, she’s a girl that was made out of snow and… well, you know that ain’t gonna end well, don’t you?
In the 19th century famous Russian playwright Александр Николаевич Островский/Alexander Nikolaevich Ostrovskiy based a play on that fairy-tale. And composer Римский-Корсаков/Rimskiy-Korsakov turned it into an opera.
They were both very successful so Snegurochka became a popular character associated with winter holidays.
And in Soviet time she became an integral part of any New Year celebration or performance. She is a part of the play and acts as a liaison between children and Ded Moroz.
At first she was played by a young girl, now it’s often a young woman. White, thin and blond usually. Yeah.
After a performance featuring that pair, kids get presents. Not the real presents that their parents bought them for New Year. Just a box or a bag of sweets and cookies. (Parents pay for that too, of course). But the main thing is that as a kid in Russia you go to several of this performances before and after New Year’s day, so you expect to get a hella lot of sweets.
Plus a proper present under a New Year tree on the first of January in the morning.
My childhood trauma
I’m afraid I’ve never really believed in Ded Moroz. Cause people who played him in my kindergarten sounded suspiciously like our teachers (and I’ve always recognized people by their voices, because I don’t have a good memory for faces).
Also my parents were clumsy enough that I saw them put my presents under the tree when I was about 4 years old. So the gig was up before it even began. But I still love New Year, cause I like sweets and decorations and food and time off. Oh, time off!
What else happens before the main event?
The latter two items on that list is probably what grown-ups look forward to the most during this time of year in Russia. They also get New Year parties and exchange gifts at work and at home. And run themselves ragged… well, women are mostly the ones who run themselves ragged trying to prepare everything for the New Year’s Eve.
For school kids the end of December is the end of the second school term (more about that in my episode #14 about Schools in Russia). After they had all the tests, they get their own Ёлка/Yolka and then finally on the 28th or 29th of December the blissful winter holidays start. This year they lasted till the 9th of January, by the way.
And yeah, the 24th and 25th of December are just regular days here.
The real main celebration stats in the evening of the 31st of December and lasts till the early hours of the 1st of January.
We have a shitton of superstitions about that holiday. Part of them sort of transferred itself from Christmas but some are more recent. Basically the New Year is the boundary that you cross. And after it everything sort of starts anew.
Superstitions and preparations
So before the New Year’s Eve you should try to pay all your debts, make amends with people you have problems with, forgive all wrongs and do other harmful shit like that that doesn’t resolve anything.
You also have to scrub your house clean, decorate it with a New Year tree and whatever else you’d like, prepare a veritable feast, dress in your best clothes and try to spend the night in a way that you would like to spend the rest of the year.
Which obviously puts enormous stress on everybody, especially women. And since New Year is a family holiday for a lot of people… Well, all the problems that some people have with Christmas in Western countries we have here too.
BUT if you are a tourist, you needn’t worry about that! You can just book a table in a restaurant and chill! We can also do that but that would require getting rid of some of societal expectations in our heads. And… The horror! – Breaking convention.
Chinese traditions (Whaaat?)
We also do a bit of cultural appropriation here. You know how in China and related cultures each year is associated with an animal from a 12 year cycle? For example, 2019 is the year of a pig.
That is also superpopular in Russia. Mostly, I think, because you can produce and sell enormous amounts of merchandise with those animals.
We also get a shitton of recommendations from media about what colours to wear during the celebration, what foods to prepare and all that stuff.
The irony is that most of us know next to nothing about Chinese culture and how they celebrate New Year. And also that we do all that stuff on the 31st of December, even though the real Chinese New Year doesn’t come until more than a month later.
The staple dish
But let’s get back to tables and restaurants. What do we usually eat? Well, the main dish associated with New Year here is a salad called Olivier. It has nothing to do with the British actor or your ideas about a salad, probably.
Here is how I make it:
- Take 4 boiled potatoes and 4 boiled eggs, a couple of boiled carrots. Dice all that stuff. Or if you are lazy about cooking like my mum and me, carrots can be raw. Or shredded and marinated with spices and vinegar Korean style. (Which probably has very little to do with real Korean food, it’s just called Korean here. Sorry, folks).
- I’m a vegetarian so I skip the next bit: dice boiled chicken breast or ham. Also dice or thickly grate a fresh apple or two and a couple of pickles. Dice a medium sized onion as well, and add canned peas.
- Mix all that together, add salt, pepper and mayonnaise and voila!
If you think that’s extremely filling, to put it lightly, you are right.
What else is on the table?
But that’s just one salad, the norm is to have 4 or 5 of those on the table. And a hot dish, and maybe even desert if you have the space inside of you.
Other traditional things are champaign, tangerines and toast with caviar. When I said we prepare a feast, I meant it.
Although, to be fair, not everybody goes to all that trouble. I usually make a bunch of salads because I like to open the fridge the next morning and see them all there waiting for me in pretty crystal salad bowls. That’s actually my favourite memory of New Year’s day from when I was little. But I don’t drink, so no champaign, and I never make the hot dish and my desert is usually ice-cream.
Do we just sit around the table and eat?
Well… yeah. But we also watch tv.
Holiday season is the time when you can watch old Soviet New Year films non-stop. In case you are wondering what’s in them, they are basically like Christmas movies but often without Santa or Ded Moroz. They are comedies, often musicals or musical fairy-tales, and they often have an element of romance in them.
The most famous one is called Ирония судьбы/Ironia sudbi – Destiny’s irony. And it’s so ubiquitous that there’s a joke that you can tell how old you are by the number of times you’ve seen that movie.
We watch Hollywood and British Christmas movies too sometimes. Or rather they watch. I gave up watching our tv a decade ago and never once did I regret it.
New Year lights
Especially the annual New Year shows. They are called Новогодний огонек/Novogodniy ogonek – The New Year light. They include a bunch of famous people, like actors, pop-singers and whoever is on the menu that year. They sit around nice tables and pretend to be happy and festive and full of New Year spirit, even though it’s pre-recorded in like… October if not September probably. They drink champagne but never get drunk and they often sing either their own horrible songs or re-written old or foreign songs. Re-written so that they are connected to the New Year’s celebration.
I’m honestly not sure if I am that snobbish or are they really that bad. But I seriously can’t watch that crap.
When the clock strikes 12
So on New Year’s Eve I turn on tv for 5 minutes only at 11.55 – to watch to the clock on Spasskaya tower of the Moscow Kremlin strike midnight and welcome a New Year in. The clock is called Куранты/Kuranti, by the way, and it is of course also pre-recorded, because there are eleven time zones in Russia. And when it’s midnight in Vladivostok, it’s 5 pm in Moscow.
Also before Куранты/Kuranti clock strikes 12, Russian president gives his New Year address to the nation.
There’s often a toast before the clock strikes, to say goodbye to the old year, and then everybody drinks to usher in a New Year. Then some people set off fireworks outside, and others (like me) watch the display from the warmth and safety of their home.
There are also bigger firework displays in central squares of most big cities.
And after you’ve seen that you can stay up and celebrate however long you’d like. Unless you’re a kid. Than you stay however long they let you.
Also keep in mind that New Year is celebrated along those lines in most former Soviet countries and in Russian immigrant communities around the world.
How do you survive after that? (Just fine)
Next seven or even eight days most people in the country have time off, except for those who work in shops and cafes and entertainment and public transportation and… shit, a lot of people actually work. Hm. But that means you won’t be stranded here without any sustenance.
In big cities like mine and, of course, in Moscow or Saint Petersburg shops and cafes will be open even on the first of January. And there won’t any be crowds. At least not in the morning.
What can you do during that time?
Well, you can do all sorts of snowy activities. For example, skiing. That could be cross-country or mountain skiing, but for the latter you might wanna go to a ski resort.
There are plenty of them in different parts of Russia. Most famous and consequently popular ones are near Sochi, the place where they held 2014 Olympics, and in the Caucasus mountains.
But if you don’t wanna leave the capital, there are several places where you can ski or snowboard in Moscow.
You can also skate. There usually are plenty of skating rinks in big cities. Central ones in Moscow like in VDNKH park or in Gorky park will cost you less than 10 dollars, but you can find smaller ones, where it’s less crowded and cheaper. And you can probably find places to skate for free.
The same goes for other cities. For example, last year I was in Ульяновск/Uliyanosk around Christmas, and they had the whole embankment along the Volga river turned into a free skating rink. Skaters had their own special ice lane, and pedestrians had two parallel lanes. It was really cool, actually.
Oh, that goes for all winter activities – if you go to a specialised place, you can rent equipment there.
Another obvious and actually my favourite activity is sliding from hilltops and artificial slides on whatever you want or have available. I have a tubing thingie and I love it. We have hills and slides in every town or city, so possibilities are endless.
Or you can just walk around and enjoy the New Year decorations. In Moscow and Saint Petersburg they are always spectacular. But provincial cities (apart from mine) can have good ones too.
And if you are tired of all of that, you can stay in front of the tv and watch a Harry Potter or the Lord of the rings marathon in Russian. Our tv-stations love showing them around this time of year.
Locals do all that, plus we also visit friends and relatives, and do whatever everybody usually does with their free time.
And then suddenly… Christmas!
All that blissful relaxation hopefully lasts till the day after Christmas. What do I mean Christmas? Isn’t it over already? Oh no, sweeties! Christmas in Russia is actually on the 7th of January. Ta-dah! How come?
History and calendars
Well, if you’ve ever read the Jesus related portion of the Bible you might’ve noticed that it basically takes place inside the Roman Empire. And the Roman empire at the time was using the Julian calendar.
It was proposed by Julius Caesar in the year 46 BC. And it was the predominant calendar in the Roman world, most of Europe and everywhere the Europeans had time to colonise. And then it was refined and gradually replaced by the Gregorian calendar. That’s the one that our world uses today. It’s called Gregorian because it was promulgated by Pope Gregory the XIII in 1582.
But Russia was all like “yeah, right, like hell we will change our calendar because of some Catholic Pope!”
Well, it wasn’t just Russia to be fair, all countries that were and are parts of the Eastern Orthodox Christian church felt like that. So they didn’t change the calendar.
New Russian empire, old calendar
And life went on as normal until tsar Peter the Great. He wanted to make a Russian Empire out of simply Russia. And he felt that closer contact with Europe was necessary for that.
He did a lot to make Russia look more European. And one of the things that he did was to transfer New Year celebrations from the 1st of September to the 1st of January in the year 1700
But he didn’t change the calendar. So his first Winter New Year came ten days later than in Europe. It WAS the 1st of January, just in the Julian calendar.
As centuries went by the time difference only grew. So New years between 1701 and 1800 came to the Russian Empire 11 days later than to the rest of Europe and other countries that had adopted Gregorian calendar. New Years between 1801 and 1900 were 12 days late. And New Years between 1901 and 1918 came 13 days late.
That’s why the most famous Russian revolution, the one with Lenin and his guys is called October revolution in Russia, although for the rest of the world it was already November.
To be more specific, it was the 25th of October 1917 in Russia and the 7th of November in other countries.
So if you ever read a historic text about Russia before 1919 you will probably see two dates. The earlier one is in the Julian calendar and that’s called old style. The later one is in the Gregorian calendar, it’s called New style.
Let’s have another example: Wikipedia says that Leo Tolstoy was born on the 28th of August or the 9th of September 1828. So when was he born exactly? By our modern standards on the 9th of September. But for his mom and the rest of Russia it was the 28th of August.
So, if you ever feel like writing a historical crime novel that is somehow connected to Russia before 1918, you should keep this in mind as a nice historically accurate plot twist 😉
Who’s a timelord?
When большевики/bolsheviki came to power after the revolution I’ve just mentioned, they decided that shit just can’t go on like this! Enough is enough, you know! And they moved the country forward 13 days on the 1st of February 1918. Which suddenly became 14th of February 1918.
Now who’s a timelord? And no TARDIS required.
And no, we are not the most stubborn country in Europe, Greece was the last to adopt the Gregorian calendar in 1923.
In the 20th and the 21st centuries the difference is 13 days. It didn’t change in the year 2000 because of some difficult mathematical leap year calculations that I just don’t feel like getting into. But after the year 2100 it will grow again.
I’ll leave the links about the calendars and dual dating in the shownotes.
Yeah, but why?
I hope you get it! And if you don’t, there’s really no need to worry! Just remember that Russian Christmas is on the 7th of January. Till the end of this century, anyway.
Wait, you say? But why? If Russia now uses the Gregorian calendar, why on Earth is Christmas celebrated on the day that’s 25th of December by the Julian calendar?
Well… You might’ve noticed that in our modern world religious organisations are among the most conservative. So they just didn’t make the switch. They and Orthodox Christian churches of Ukraine, Georgia, Montenegro, Poland, Serbia and other national churches.
I mean why make the stuff easy to understand for most people? Religion is not about making stuff understandable, you know.
And btw, if you think that was complicated it has nothing on the way Easter dates are calculated!
Ok, so what happens in Russia on the 7th of January?
For a lot of people nothing really special. Separating New Year from Christmas in the beginning of the 20th century accomplished one thing – it made sure that Christmas remained or became (depends on your point of view) a religious holiday, and New Year is that ultimate family get-together around the table and stuff yourself with food so that you don’t kill anybody kinda holiday.
Which is very good in my opinion. Because Russian Orthodox church… is a… how do I phrase this so I don’t get in trouble for offending religious people? Yep, that is punishable by law in Russia which kinda hints on the point I’m trying to make. Russian Orthodox church is closely connected with power structures in this country. It wants to be a national religion. Which in a multinational country is… questionable.
I have difficult relationship with that church as an institution. Notice that I didn’t say anything about God. Because religious organisations have surprisingly little to do with God.
Yeah, but what do people do?
Muslims and members of other religions just relax on the 7th of January. And a lot of people who consider themselves Orthodox Christians also just relax. Cause after a 70 year Soviet Union induced gap religious practices aren’t especially strong.
So only really zealous Christians go to church at night and stand through the whole service. Yep, in Russian churches you stand during service. No pews unless you’re disabled or very old and infirm. Well, actually no pews at all, just a couple of benches.
Also Christmas is the end of lent for those who keep the fast. So on the 7th they might have themselves a feast the rest of the population had at New Year’s Day. Or rather night, considering when we have that meal.
What about traditions?
In the olden days there were loads of Christmas traditions. For example, kids went from house to house and did something similar to trick-or-treating but with our Christmas songs.
Then the Soviet Union interrupted everything for almost a century. Now some folks try to renew those customs but honestly… they feel kinda fake to me. Which could be just me. Although no one I know does that.
But then again I live in a big city and while we certainly are provincial we are not… a small town in the middle of European part of Russia where there are almost more churches than people. I’m thinking of a particular place while I’m saying this. It’s called Suzdal and I’ll talk about it in one of the next episodes.
Maybe there it looks more authentic. I honestly wouldn’t know. Different corners of Russia are different.
The end of the holiday season. Or is it?
So Christmas is kinda anti-climatic, isn’t it? Oh well. At least it’s a public holiday and everybody has a day off. If you a tourist visiting a Russian church on that day might be fun though. It should look especially pretty and shiny inside.
And on the 8th or the 9th of January people have to go to work again. Grumpily in my case.
But it’s not the end! We also have the oddest holiday called Old New Year. Really. It’s called that.
Old New year. Really
As you might have guessed, it exists because of the calendar difference I’ve described before. So it’s a New Year in the Julian calendar or old style.
What do we do on Old New Year’s day? Well, as with the regular New Year the most important thing happens in the evening of the 13th of January and early hour of the 14th. If it’s a weekend and people don’t have to go to work next day, they might have another family celebration or a party with friends. New Year tv programming is repeated again, including some old Soviet films, New Year lights show, maybe even president’s address on a couple of channels and the Kuranti clock striking midnight.
This year the 13th of January is Sunday, so I’ll have to work the next day. What do I plan to do on Old New Year’s Eve then? I will probably watch Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra New Year concert. Cause I forgot to watch it on the 1st of January and it’s lovely.
And that’s mostly it for now. Actually I really got in the holiday mood while I was making this episode. Now I wanna celebrate all over again! Good thing I still have Old New Year! Maybe that’s what it’s for?
But now it’s time for the segment:
How do you say it in Russian?
You can guess what I’m going with, right? To congratulate people with the New Year you will say С Новым годом! – S Novim Godom!
And to congratulate them with Christmas you say С Рождеством! – S Rozhjestvom!
You can add words to wish them a happy New Year or Christmas, but you don’t have to. It’s implied, I guess. So С Новым годом! С Рождеством!
If you like the show, please, rate it and leave a review however and wherever you listen, cause apparently it’s very helpful! And it would make me very happy!
Till next time!
Gigi, from Russia with love and looooooong winter holidays!