December 24 is not Christmas night in Russia, where the Orthodox Christmas is celebrated on the night of January 6. 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 January 6, or Epiphany, the day when the Wise Men came to worship Jesus.
Saint Nicolas existed in the flesh. He was born in Mira, Asia Minor, the city of which he became Bishop, in the fourth century AD. He became tied to gift-giving due to the many stories of his generosity, as he distributed his considerable wealth among the poor and in favour of social causes.
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 Snegoroshka (The Snow Girl). 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).
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, (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).
*Timothy Bancroft-Hinchey has worked as a correspondent, journalist, deputy editor, editor, chief editor, director, project manager, executive director, partner and owner of printed and online daily, weekly, monthly and yearly publications, TV stations and media groups printed, aired and distributed in Angola, Brazil, Cape Verde, East Timor, Guinea-Bissau, Portugal, Mozambique and São Tomé and Principe Isles; the Russian Foreign Ministry publication Dialog and the Cuban Foreign Ministry Official Publications. He has spent the last two decades in humanitarian projects, connecting communities, working to document and catalog disappearing languages, cultures, traditions, working to network with the LGBT communities helping to set up shelters for abused or frightened victims and as Media Partner with UN Women, working to foster the UN Women project to fight against gender violence and to strive for an end to sexism, racism and homophobia. A Vegan, he is also a Media Partner of Humane Society International, fighting for animal rights. He is Director and Chief Editor of the Portuguese version of Pravda.Ru.