Tonight (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).
Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas on January 7, in line with the Julian calendar. Following a 40-day fast, the festivities start on the eve of January 7 and will continue for almost two weeks until Epiphany, Feast of the Three Kings. The first star also signals the start of the Christmas dinner. Many people visit friends and relatives, as well as give and receive presents, on January 7. Prior to Christmas Day, there is Christmas Eve, which marks the start of an old Slavic holiday, Svyatki, in which young women used a mirror and candles to invoke the image of their future husbands. Like going to church, fortune-telling on Christmas Eve is again becoming popular in Russia.
It is traditional also for the President to address the nation:
"The celebration of Christmas is one of the sources of our spiritual traditions, linked to the Christian ideals of morality and mercy which have for centuries been major values and milestones for the people and basis for the social life in Russia," an English-language statement on the presidential website read.
"Today, they continue to strengthen the moral foundations of our society and maintain the atmosphere of mutual respect, religious tolerance and concord," the statement went on.
Christmas is the time for good wishes and good deeds. Let the light of this holiday always be with you, give you confidence, bring joy and hope."
There are more than 800 Orthodox churches in Moscow, and over 29,000 Russian Orthodox Churches across the globe.
Orthodox Christmas is a national holiday in Russia so banks and public offices are closed on January 7. If Christmas Day falls on a weekend, the non-labor day moves to the following Monday. Russian authorities may sometimes declare a national vacation from January 1 to 10 due to the close proximity of New Year's holidays (January 1-5), Christmas and the weekends between these two holidays.
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