Author`s name Timothy Bancroft-Hinchey

Christmas in Russia - 6 January, 2009

Russia celebrates Orthodox Christmas on the 7th of January. We present a brief summary highlighting the most common traditions, the symbols of Orthodox Christmas, the food and the significance of this date.

St. Nicholas is the patron of Russia, of sailors and children, the benevolent figure who brings gifts on December 6th, December 25th or on January 6th, depending on the country and the religion / culture. In Russia, Christmas Eve is celebrated on the 6th and the following 12 days are holy days, to celebrate the birth of Christ, according to the Julian calendar.

Saint Nicolas existed in the flesh. He was born in 217 AD, in Mira, Asia Minor, the city of which he became Bishop, in the fourth century AD. He became tied to gift-giving due to two myths: that he saved three daughters of a poor man from prostitution, giving each one of them a bag of gold; in the other, he saved three navy officers from death, after appearing in their dreams - hence the name of the sweet that is eaten in Portuguese-speaking countries at this time (sonhos/dreams).

Originally, gifts were given on the 6th of December but this was changed when in the fourth century, Pope Julius (337-352) set the 25th of December as the day of the birth of Jesus, because it was a day that coincided with the Roman festival of Saturnalia, and the Germanic and Celtic pagan festivities of the winter Solstice (December 21). It was in the thirteenth century that the habit of building cribs to celebrate Christ's birth began.

The Orthodox Church then changed this festival to the Day of Epiphany (day of the adoration, the 6th of January), when the Three Kings/Wise Men/Zoroastrian astrologists brought presents for the baby Jesus in the stable because according to the Julian calendar, Christmas is behind the Gregorian calendar by two weeks. It is on this day that Christmas is celebrated in Russia, but who brings the gifts are Ded Moroz (Grandfather Frost), and Snegoroushka (Grandmother Frost). Ded Moroz is perhaps the original Santa Claus, with his white long beard and his long clothes.

In Russia, Christmas Eve is celebrated with various dishes, with the whole family together, and in some homes, places are made for family members who have died. The meal (The Holy Supper) is large, since it ends a period of fasting. However, it is unusual to eat meat. The party begins when the first star appears in the Sky. On the table is a white cloth, representing the cloth that covered the baby Jesus. Some people place straw around the table, symbolizing simplicity, and a candle is lit on the table (Light of Christ). The tree (yolka) is decorated before the meal.

Traditionally, the father of the family prays the Prayer of Our Lord and says "Christ is born!" Family members say the words "glorify Him!" And the mother makes the sign of the cross with honey over all present, saying, "In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, have sweetness and many good things in life during the coming year.

The group then shares the bread, which they put in the honey (sweetness) and then a mouthful of garlic (bitterness), in life.

The food varies from region to region, but among the most traditional are the following 12 dishes, symbolizing the 12 apostles:

Kutya, a pudding of grains (wheat, etc), raisins, honey and poppy seeds. The grains symbolize hope, honey - happiness and seeds - peace. The Kutya is eaten from the same plate, symbolizing unity;

Pagach, a large bread put beside the candle;

Zaprashka Soup, (pricked onion and flour), with mushrooms;

Strung or grated garlic;


Roast cod or fish;

Fresh or dried fruits;


Meat, rice and black beans;

Peas or lentils;

Cooked small potatoes;

Bobal’ki (small cookies with seeds or cabbage)


After the Holy Supper, the gifts are opened, the family attends Mass in Church and returns home late. Traditionally, people would walk in the villages after the Supper or the next day, singing Kolyadki, songs to Jesus (the name comes from the Goddess Kolyada, who brought longer days).

As you can see, Russians, like any other people, are a happy people. They like to smile, to laugh, to celebrate and to be with family. They like peace, love and happiness and would like to wish good and luck to all people, not only within the family, but also in the rest of the world - a world that could do a little more to understand how they are and not as they are painted by an ever-hostile and misinforming western press.