Winter festivals and holidays in Russia
New Year – January 1
New Years day is a public holiday and has been celebrated throughout Russia since 1700. It seems that in true Russian style Tsar Peter the Great ordered that carnivals, and a mass national festivals were to be held around decorated Christmas trees. In addition it was obligatory to have the two Russian folklore characters, Grandfather Frost and the Snow Maiden. More on the history of New Year in Russia.
Christmas - January 7
The first day of the Russian Christmas comes not from a Gregorian calendar but, from the Julian calendar thus coming 13 days after 25 December the date used by most of the world. This is one of the most spectacular festivals in the Orthodox Church. At midnight the churches of Russia start their divine service, usually with magnificent coral chanting.
Christmas-tide - January 7 - 17
This is the holiday period between Christmas and Christening. Traditionally the Russian Orthodox Church has a forty day fast leading up to Christmas and ‘Christmas-tide’ is the ‘realease’ period. For two weeks, all over Russia, people make the first meal after the fast a time of festive enjoyment. National festivals are arranged during this period and elements of both Christianity and Paganism (worship of the sun and heat). Celebrations can accompanied by folklore presentations, and riding the Siberian troika (sledge drawn by three horses). Food of the season such as, bliny (Russian pancakes), caviar, pies, honey and vodka, help to negate the cold winter.
Christening - January 19
Christmas-tide ends with a colourful holiday called, Christening. On this day the Orthodox Church remembers the christening of Christ John, in the river Jordan, and in recognition of this the church consecrates some local water. Solemn religious processions to reservoirs (rivers, lakes, springs, wells) are organized all over Russia. To the accompaniment of prayers and chanting the priests immerse a cross into an ice-hole. After the service believers then consecrate their own houses with sacred water. In addition those who wish to accept Christianity put into the ice water to be formally christened.
Maslenitsa (Pancake Week) - March 2 -9
The last week before the seven weeks of Lent. The ancient celebration of Pancake Week comes from Russian paganism and their, ‘Cult of the Sun’. The main idea is saying goodbye to the cold winter and welcoming spring. Ancient Slavs believed that rituals, and ceremonies, can help make the Sun bring its warmth to the Earth and speed up the arrival of spring. The traditional Russian way of celebrating this is to have carnivals and festivals with clowns, dancing around fires, and riding the troika. The culmination of this holiday involves burning on a Winter Scarecrow. These days before the fast sets in (even though most people don’t fact), during which ‘fun food’ is forbidden, people welcome guests, and bake pancakes which symbolize the Sun.
Puss-willow Sunday - April 4
Holiday celebrating the arrival of Christ into Jerusalem, as the saviour of the world. This is when people met him with open admiration and laid palm branches on the ground before his path. In Russia puss-willow branches are consecrated instead of a palm tree (hard to find!). Puss willow is a type of ‘willow tree’ which in spring blossom forms before those on other trees, and this marks the victory of a life over death in the Orthodox Christ. There is an ancient custom to arrive at Church with a bouquet of puss-willow.
Easter - April 11
This is the favourite and most spectacular of the Orthodox holidays in Russia. At midnight all believers gather in the churches. A solemn divine service with bell ringing is followed by a procession featuring, candles, icons, crosses, and celebratory singing. Priests are dressed in their finest celebratory robes. All people are welcome and give each other painted Easter Eggs, along with consecrated Easter Cakes.