Russian Christmas is celebrated according to the Orthodox Calendar on the 7th of January. During the Soviet era, Christmas was not celebrated. In fact, it was forbidden. Many people still carried on their celebrations in secret though, and today it is again a very popular celebration in Russian society.
The lead-up to Christmas in Russia is a busy time. It is only one week after New Years, and for many people it simply is a continuation of these celebrations.
Before Christmas Eve, people clean and tidy their house and yard, and decorate the house in a lavish manner. Exquisite decorations, table cloths, napkins, and rugs are used to create a beautiful atmosphere. A Christmas tree is also common - sometimes adorned with foods due to the high cost of decorations.
The food for Christmas is prepared for some days in advance, with turkey, stuffed pork, pies, pastries and sweets for children. In some families, a traditional Christmas dinner would not include any meat, although this is not so common in modern times. Either way, the dinner will be a bounty of food and drink, to celebrate the birth of Christ, and to prepare for the fasting period of Lent.
Most of the celebrating for Russian Christmas takes place on Christmas Eve, the 6th of January. Christmas Mass takes place on this evening, and in some cathedrals this ceremony can go long into the night. For most people, however, the mass will end early, and people return home for the Christmas dinner with their families.
After dinner, children often go from house to house singing carols, and receiving sweets as gifts.
The period after Christmas Day until the 18th of January is known as Svyatki, and it is interesting to see how this has become a traditional part of Russian Christmas celebrations.
This holiday dates back before Orthodox Christianity, to the times when Russia was a pagan society. The custom was to dress up in the skin of different animals and sing songs in worship of the main god - the Sun. The celebration was called Kolyada. On the first night of Kolyada, people lit a big fire which was kept burning for 12 days, as a symbol of new life. On hills, people rolled a big burning wheel as a symbol of the Sun. All gathered together in the biggest house in the village, and listened to stories and songs, and dressed in new, white clothes, to call on good luck and a rich harvest.
When Russia adopted Orthodox Christianity, the meaning of these twelve holiday days changed, and the Orthodox church forbade pagan rituals and celebrations. However, the highly popular custom of dressing in animal skins and masks remained, and continues even to this day!
In olden days, Svyatki was also a time when young girls tried to guess who their future husband would be, and when they would get married. This is still a very popular tradition in Russia, especially during Svyatki, as tradition says that during this time, there are angels here to help guide us and tell us our future.
There are many customary ways for girls to guess who their husband will be... She can look in the mirror with candles after midnight and wait until she sees her future husband in the mirror; she can put a selection of items under her pillow at night before sleeping, and on waking in the morning, whichever item she takes first is said to hold a clue about her future marriage; or she can go to the end of the village, throw her boot or shoe into the air and see where it lands. Tradition says the direction it points will also point to where she will meet her future husband.
Svyatki is a very joyful part of Russian Christmas celebrations.