In the Russian Federation, Christmas is a public holiday observed on January 7th. This is because the Russian Orthodox Church uses the old Julian calendar for days of religious celebration. Here in the west, we use the Gregorian calendar for everything — that’s why we celebrate it on December 25th. Some Roman Catholics and Protestants in Russia celebrate Christmas on December 25th, but it is not a public holiday on this date.
During the days of the Soviet Union, religious celebrations were discouraged by the Soviet government, which was officially an atheist state. A lot of Christmas traditions were kept alive during the Soviet period by shifting them to the secular New Year celebration. These traditions include the decoration of a “yolka” (decoration similar to a Christmas Tree), other festive decorations and family gatherings, and a visit by the gift-giving “Dyed Moroz” and his granddaughter “Snegurochka”.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Christmas celebration was revived. Christmas was re-established as a public holiday in 1991 and is no longer suppressed. However, the New Year holiday is still important to most Russians — sometimes more important than Christmas.
New Year’s Day
New Year’s Day (Но́вый Год (Novy God)) is celebrated on January 1st. January 2-5 are public holidays as well. The week between New Year’s Day and Christmas (January 7th) are usually taken off from work.
New Year’s Day is considered a family celebration, with lavish food and gifts. The President of Russia counts down the final seconds of the old year. The Kremlin’s Spassky Clock Tower chimes in the new year and then the national anthem starts. It is customary to make a wish while the Clock chimes.
During New Year celebrations, many people decorate a “yolka” (ёлка), which is much like a Christmas tree. Ded Moroz (Дед Моро́з), the Russian equivalent to Santa Claus, also brings children gifts. He is often accompanied by his granddaughter Snegurochka (Снегу́рочка), “the Snow Maiden.”
Christmas Eve and Day
Christmas celebrations begin with Christmas Eve on January 6th. In Russian, Christmas Eve is соче́льник (sochelnik). Some people fast (don’t eat anything) on Christmas Eve, until the first star has appeared in the sky. There are long church services on Christmas Eve, and after these services the family returns home for the traditional Holy Supper which consists of 12 dishes, one to honor each of the twelve apostles. This tradition has become rare due to years of oppression by the Soviet government.
Religious families will then return to church for the All Night Vigil (всеночная (vsenochnaya)), and on Christmas morning (January 7th) for the Divine Liturgy of the Nativity (заутренняя (zautrennyaya)).
New Year’s Greetings (Listen):
с Но́вым Го́дом! (SNO-vym GOD-am) “with the New Year” (most common)
счастли́вого Но́вого Го́да! (shchist-LEE-va-va NO-va-va GO-da) “Happy New year!”
Christmas Greetings (Listen):
с Рождество́м! (srazh-dist-VOM) “with Christmas” (most common)
весёлого Рождества́! (vyi-SYO-la-va razh-dist-VA) “Merry Christmas!”
счастли́вого Рождества́! (shchist-LEE-va-va razh-dist-VA) “Happy Christmas!”