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.
Originally, in most of Europe, presents were given on Saint Nicholas' Day, 6th December. However this was changed when in the 4th century AD, Pope Julius I (337-352) fixed the 25th December as the date of Christ's birth because it coincided more or less with the Roman festival of Saturnalia and the Pagan Germanic and Celtic festivals of the Winter Solstice on 21st December. The habit of building nativity scenes to celebrate Christ's birth began in the 13th century.
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.
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.
The Orthodox Church then started celebrating the birth of Christ on the day of Epiphany (day of adoration, 6th January), when the Three Kings brought presents to Jesus in the stable - because according to the Julian calendar, Christmas is out of phase with the Gregorian (Western) calendar by 2 weeks. This is the day when Christmas is celebrated in Russia but the one who brings presents is Ded Moroz (Grandfather Frost) and Snegoroushka (the Snow Girl). Ded Moroz is maybe the original Father Christmas, with his long white beard and long tunic-like clothes.
In Russia, Christmas Eve is celebrated with various typical dishes, in a family reunion and in some houses, places set at the table for family members who died. The meal (the Holy Supper) is large, because it ends a period of fasting. However, meat is not eaten. The party begins when the first star appears in the sky. On the table, a white cloth, symbolizing the white swaddling cloth around the baby Jesus. Some people place straw around the table to symbolise simplicity, evoking the manger where the baby Jesus was born. A candle is lit in the centre of the table (the Light of Christ). The Christmas 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).