Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Christmas in Russia


Under the USSR, all religious activities were suspended in Russia. Yet, to witness the revival of Christmas celebrations and the rejuvenation of old customs, one can only conclude that the ban was not entirely successful. If it had been, the Russian people would have had to look to exiles to learn their old ways and this is clearly not the case.

Russian Christmas is always blessed with snow. The beauty of the snow laden Russian countryside in many places seems to have jumped from a postcard. The Russians are proud of their Orthodox customs and comfortable about the way in which they, like all Christian societies, have incorporated certain pre-Christian traditions that are associated with that time of the year.

Orthodox observers in Russia abstain from meat for 39 days before the 12 days of Christmas, eating meat only when the first star appears in the sky on Christmas Eve. The festivities begin in earnest at this time, since they also abstain from social gatherings (parties) during the 39-day period of fasting. Christmas corresponds to a period of the year known as sviatki, a time when pre-Christian Russians feared supernatural forces. They would attempt to divine their intentions or placate them with rituals, many of which have been preserved in the foods eaten at this time of the year.

The Russian Christmas season is characterized by guessing games (gadanie), games of fortune-telling, carols (kolyiadki), feasting on traditional foods and of course, the solemn, yet joyous religious services. One food that is noteworthy is kutya, a type of sweet porridge made from wheat berries, honey and poppy seeds. The origin of the recipe is lost in the mists of time. It is said to have the magical power to summon ancestors. Eaten from a common bowl, it is also a symbol of unity.

The nineteenth century was a golden age for many Russian Christmas customs, music and art. One only need recall The Nutcracker, Tolstoy's War and Peace (in which many Christmas customs are found) and The Snow Maiden to see what contributions Russian artists have made to many Christians world-wide as they celebrate this season.

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The New Year

An especially gorgeous and luxurious New Year's Day was on September 1, 1698, under Peter the Great. Peter the Great named everyone a brother, gave out apples to everybody, and wished a happy New Year and a lot of happiness. A volley of 25 guns accompanied each toast of His Majesty! In 1699 Peter the Great changed the New Year's Day to January 1. His name is connected with the custom to decorate houses with branches of the evergreen trees, mostly from the coniferous trees. In the 30s of the 19th century only the Germans, living in St. Petersburg (Russia), decorated their houses with New Year Trees. Since1852, they had started putting the New Year Trees in the squares of St. Petersburg. Only by the end of the 19-century people started putting them in the houses.

In 1918, the New Year Tree was banned because it was a reminder of Christmas. And as you know, during those years Russia was ruled under the Bolsheviks (Communists). They were atheists. More and more Christmas was forced out and New Year's Day became the most important, beloved and favorite holiday for the Russians. But at first, it was prohibited to celebrate this holiday with the New Year Tree. Only in 1935 Stalin, "the best friend of children and all the peoples", gave his permission to make the New Year Tree the center of New Year's parties.

In the former Soviet Union we did not celebrate Christmas so openly as it is celebrated again now. Though sometimes somewhere people did mention this great holiday in their private talks and even celebrated it at home. Only after the so-called perestroika people started celebrating Christmas again. Do you know that we actually have two Christmases? One is celebrated based on the Gregorian calendar - December 25, and this celebration is not official. That is the date when people in pre-Revolutionary Russia celebrated Christmas. The other one is an official Christmas and celebrated by our Orthodox Church January 7. This is a holiday now and it quickly becoming one of the most popular celebrations of the year. So we celebrate New Year's Day on January 1, and later -- January 7 -- is our Christmas Day. But if you are in Russia, you will be amazed at our traditions. Some people celebrate both Christmases with the same great enthusiasm! Isn't it funny? Besides, we have the so-called Old New Year's Day! It is celebrated on January 13 and 14, but it is not an official holiday.

Still nowadays, New Year's Day is the most popular holiday and celebrated nationwide. We put up a New Year Tree (usually it is a fir-tree, or in Russian it is "yolka") decorate it just the way people do in the USA, and presents for our relatives and children are usually set under the tree. At midnight, a bottle of champagne is opened and people wish each other, "Happy New Year!" Some residents wish their neighbors and friends a Happy New Year dressed as Grandpa Frost. There are huge trees in our main city and town squares, with ice towers and snow-towns and other stuff made of ice: horses, wolves, rabbits and other animals and fairy tale characters: Grandpa Frost (sort of Santa Clause, but his history is different!) and his Granddaughter Snow Maiden.

Schools are closed for the holidays and lots of children are out in parks and squares, playing in the winter frosty weather and enjoying the ice world. There are circuses, performances at all Palaces of Culture and play houses and other theatrical presentations as well as traditional outdoor parties with troika (three-horse sleigh), rids, folk games, and dancing around New Year Trees.

Then comes January 7, our Christmas Day. Cathedrals and churches are especially enchanting and visitors are welcome. Some of them go to worship, the others - to observe. The mass starts at midnight and lasts till dawn. There are no seats in Orthodox Churches, but even non-believers are likely to stay longer than they have planned.

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One of the most famous things about Christmas in Russia, to people in western Europe and the USA, is the story of Babushka. Babushka means Grand Mother in Russian. It tells the story of an old women who met the Wise men on their way to see Jesus.

However, most people in Russia have never heard of the story and I've had many emails from Russian visitors to the site who have never heard the story before! It seems that it was probably created by an American poet and writer called Edith Matilda Thomas in 1907. Here's more information about how the story of Babushka came into being on another site.

The Story of Babushka

Once in a small Russian town, there lived a women called Babushka. Babushka always had work to do sweeping, polishing, dusting and cleaning. Her house was the best kept, most tidy house in the whole village. Her garden was beautiful and her cooking was wonderful. One evening she was busy dusting and cleaning, so busy that she didn't hear all the villagers outside in the village square talking about and looking at the new star in sky.

She had heard about the new star but thought, 'All this fuss about a star! I don't even have the time to look because I'm so behind with my work. I must work all night!' So, she missed the star as it shone brightly, high overhead. She also missed the little line of twinkling lights coming down towards the village at dawn. She didn't hear the sounds of the pipes and drums. She missed the voices and whispers of the villagers wondering whether the lights were an army or a procession of some sort. She missed the sudden quiet of the villagers and even the footsteps coming up the path to her door. But the one thing that she couldn't miss was the loud knocking on her front door!

'Now what is that?' she wondered, opening the door. Babushka gaped in amazement. There were three kings at her door with one of their servants! 'My masters need a place to rest,' the servant said, 'and yours is the best house in the village.' 'You want to stay here?' asked Babushka. 'Yes, it would only be until night falls and the star appears again,' the servant replied. Babushka gulped. 'Come in, then,' she said.

The kings were very pleased when they saw all of the of the home-baked bread, pies and cakes. She dashed about, serving them, asking lots of questions. 'Have you come a long way?' 'A very long way,' sighed Caspar. 'Where are you going?' 'We're following the new star,' said Melchior. 'But where?' The kings didn't know, but they believed that it would lead the to a new-born king, a King of Earth and Heaven. 'Why don't you come with us?' asked Balthasar. 'You could bring him a gift like we do. I bring gold, and my colleagues bring spices and perfumes.' 'Oh, I'm not sure that he would welcome me,' said Babushka, 'and what could I bring for a gift? Toys! I know I could bring a toy. I've got a cupboard full of toys,' she said sadly. 'My baby son, died when he was small.' Balthasar stopped her as she went to tidy the kitchen up. 'This new king could be your king too. Come with us when the star appears tonight,' he said. 'I'll think about it,' sighed Babushka.

As the kings slept, Babushka tidied up as quietly as she could. 'What a lot of extra work there was!' she thought, 'and this new king, what a funny idea, to go off with the kings to find him.'

Babushka shook herself. There was no time for dreaming, all this washing-up and putting away had to be done. 'Anyway,' she thought, 'how long would she be away? What would she wear? What about the gift?' She sighed. 'There is so much to do. The house will have to be cleaned when they've gone. I couldn't just leave it.' Suddenly it was night-time again and the star was in the sky. 'Are you ready, Babushka?' asked Balthasar. 'I'll come tomorrow,' Babushka called, 'I must just tidy here first and find a gift.'

The kings went away sadly. Babushka ran back into her house, keen to get on with her work.

Finally, she went to the small cupboard, opened the door and gazed at all the toys. But they were very dusty. They weren't fit for a baby king. They would all need to be cleaned. She cleaned all of the toys until each one shined. Babushka looked through the window. It was morning! The star had came and gone. The kings would have found somewhere else to rest by now. She could easily catch them up, but she felt so tired. She had to sleep. The next thing she knew, she was awake and it was dark outside. She had slept all day! She quickly pulled on her cloak, packed the toys in a basket and ran down the path the kings had taken.

Everywhere she asked 'Have you seen the kings?' 'Oh yes,' everyone told her, 'we saw them. They went that way.' For day Babushka followed the trail of the kings and the villages got bigger and became towns. But Babushka never stopped. Then she came to a city. 'The palace,' she thought. 'That's where the royal baby would be born.' 'No, there is no royal baby here,' said the palace guard when she asked him. 'What about three kings?' asked Babushka. 'Oh yes, they came here, but they didn't stay long. They were soon on their journey.' 'But where to?' asked Babushka. 'Bethlehem, that was the place. I don't imagine why. It's a very poor place. That's where they went.' replied the guard. She set off towards Bethlehem. It was evening when Babushka arrived at Bethlehem and she had been travelling for a long time. She went into the local inn and asked about the kings. 'Oh yes,' said the landlord, 'the kings were here two days ago. They were very excited, but they didn't even stay the night.' 'And what about a baby?' Babushka cried. 'Yes there was.' Said the landlord. The kings asked about a baby, too.' When he saw the disappointment in Babushka's eyes, he stopped. 'If you'd like to see where the baby was,' he said quickly, 'it was across the yard there. I couldn't offer the couple anything better at the time. My inn was really full, so they had to go in the stable.'

Babushka followed him across the yard. 'Here's the stable,' he said. He left her in the stable. 'Babushka?' Someone was calling her from the doorway. He looked kindly at her. She wondered if he knew where the family had gone. She knew now that the baby king was the most important thing in the world to her. 'They have gone to Egypt, and safety,' he told Babushka. 'And the kings have returned to their countries. But one of them told me about you. I am sorry but you are too late. It was Jesus that they found, the world's Saviour.'

Babushka was very sad that she had missed Jesus and it is said that Babushka is still looking for him.

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