Learn Russian | Why Christmas is not a major holiday in Russian speaking countries?

When the rest of the world is getting ready for Christmas: decorating Christmas tree, buying presents and waiting for Santa, russians are preparing for New Year with the same anticipation. The roots of these differences go deep into the history of Russia. When Vladimir the Great accepted Christianity for himself and for his subjects, Christmas became a religious holiday. Back in the days, in Soviet Union Christmas was banned as a religious holiday, Christmas Trees were banned until they turned into ‘New Year’ Trees. So by 1928 they had banned Christmas entirely, and December 25 was a normal working day. In the USSR, an anti-religious program was held; supporters of the church were persecuted many of its believers, were shot or sent to labor camps. If people want to celebrate Christmas they had to do it in a secret way.

Josef Stalin in 1935 decided to return a celebratory tree to Soviet children. But Soviet leaders linked the tree not to religious Christmas celebrations, but to a secular new year, which, future-oriented as it was, matched up nicely with Soviet ideology. The Soviet New Year’s, in fact, has become pretty much what Christmas has become in the secular Western world – a day for families to gather and share gifts and goodies under a tree, brightly lit and trimmed with homemade decorations.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, people were free to celebrate Christmas again. But it’s still a quieter and smaller holiday in Russia after the big New Year celebrations. The New Year is the big time for spending lots of money and eating and drinking lots. Christmas is much more religious and private. The big celebrations are still reserved for New Year’s Eve.

Christmas in Russia is normally celebrated on January 7th (only a few Catholics might celebrate it on the 25th December). The date is different because the Russian Orthodox Church uses the old ‘Julian’ calendar for religious celebration days. The official Christmas and New holidays in Russia last from December 31st to January 10th.

Religious people fast (don’t eat anything) on Christmas Eve, until the first star has appeared in the sky. Then they start their meal with ‘sochivo’ or ‘kutia’ a porridge made from wheat or rice served with honey, poppy seeds, fruit (especially berries and dried fruit like raisins), chopped walnuts or sometimes even fruit jellies.  Many Orthodox Christian Russians also don’t eat any meat or fish during the Christmas Eve meal.

Following the meal many people go to the midnight Church services. They often don’t wash the dishes until they get home from Church because it’s a big sin to work on holy day. 

The main meal on Christmas day is more often of a feast with dishes like roast pork and goose, pelmeni (meat dumplings). 

In some areas, children will go carol singing round the homes of friends and family and to wish people a happy new year. They are normally rewarded with cookies, sweets and money. 

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