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Russian Christmas:Traditions, Foods, and Interesting Facts

Christmas in Russia is steeped in meaningful traditions.

Christmas is traditionally celebrated in Russia on January 7th because of the old Julian calendar.  Although today, many Russians celebrate Christmas on December 25th and then again on the Orthodox date. 

Due to the Soviet suppression from 1917 – 1992, all religious expression was banned.  To circumvent this, New Year’s was reinvented to include some of their Christmas traditions.  Although Christmas is now openly celebrated on January 7, New Year’s still remains the biggest event for most Russian families.

Christmas Eve Celebrations

In the Orthodox tradition, everyone fasts on Christmas Eve until the first star appears in the sky.  The Russians break their fast with a meal called “The Holy Supper.”  The family gathers around the table to honor the coming Christ Child.  

A white table-cloth, representing Christ’s swaddling clothes, covers the table. Hay is brought in as a reminder of the poverty of the Cave where Jesus was born, and a tall white candle is place in the center of the table to symbolize Christ as the “Light of the World.”  Also present on the table is a large round loaf of Lenten bread, called Pagach, which represents Christ as the “Bread of Life”.

For a recipe for Pagach, click here.

Traditionally, the “Holy Supper” consists of 12 foods symbolizing the 12 Apostles:

1. Mushroom soup with zaprashka; this is often replaced with Sauerkraut soup
2. Lenten bread (“Pagach”)
3. Grated garlic
4. Bowl of honey
5. Baked cod
6. Fresh Apricots, Oranges, Figs and Dates
7. Nuts
8. Kidney beans (slow cooked all day) seasoned with shredded potatoes, lots of garlic, salt and pepper to taste
9. Peas
10. Parsley Potatoes (boiled new potatoes with chopped parsley and margarine)
11. Bobal’ki (small biscuits combined with sauerkraut or poppy seed with honey)
12) Red Wine

Another essential part of the meal is a porridge called Kutya. It is made of wheatberries or other grain (which stands for hope and immortality), and honey and poppy seeds (which ensures happiness, success, and peaceful rest).  Kutya is eaten from a common dish to symbolize unity. Some families still throw a spoonful of it up to the ceiling.  According to tradition, if the Kutya sticks, there will be a plentiful honey harvest.

For a recipe for Kutya, click here.

Ded Moroz and Snegurochka

New Year’s Celebrations

As a result of the suppression of religion during the Soviet regime, the Christmas tree called Yolka (from the word referring to a fir tree) was decorated for New Year’s instead.  The trees were trimmed with homemade decorations and fruit.

Similarly, St. Nicholas was replaced by Ded Moroz (Grandfather Frost), the Russian Spirit of Winter who brings gifts on New Year’s.  Each year, Ded Moroz is accompanied by Snegurochka (The Snow Maiden) who helps distribute the gifts.

Interesting Side Note:

In American, Babushka is widely thought to be a Russian tradition.  According to the folklore, Babushka (literally translated as Grandmother) was very old, so when the Three Wise Men stopped on their way to visit Jesus and asked her to accompany them, she declined.  However, she later regretted her decision and set off with a basket of presents for the baby. Unfortunately, she never found Jesus, but in the hope of finding Him one day, she visited all the houses with children and left toys for the good ones.   

* This tradition did not originate from Russia.  For more information concerning the story of Babushka and how it came into being, click here.