How to Have an Authentic Russian Christmas

Unlike the majority of the world, Russia celebrates Christmas on January 7th, not on December 25th.

And unlike America, Russia (as well as Ukraine) adhere to the traditions of the Orthodox Church wherein they follow the Gregorian calendar. Their holidays are more on the religious side of things but they still celebrate the festivities like the rest of us.

a big apple decoration in a carnival
Russia is the best place to be during Christmas because they go all out.

Russia’s version of Christmas is a picture-perfect kind. We are talking about plains covered in snow, adorable little villages(or cities illuminated by Christmas lights), the sound of church bells ringing, families gathering together for warm and delicious food and some fun sleighing on the side.

The photos you see in the cards about a snowy Christmas that looked too good to be true? That’s a real thing. And it’s a real Russian Christmas.

The reason why their Christmas is so nice is because they treat this holiday very seriously. Christmas is a public holiday in Russia so of course, they make an effort to actually make the holiday season just as amazing – if not more – than last year. Their religion plays a big role in how they treat the holidays.

Russia’s Christmas Fortune-Telling

Fortune-telling is a Russian tradition despite the fact that it is not condoned by the Russian Orthodox Church. What started this were young unmarried women in the old days who gathered at a house (баня or BAnya) which was supposedly a Russian sauna. Married people were not allowed to participate in fortune-telling.

Older women were performing word-based rituals that were designed to supposedly bring families prosperity. At least that’s what they did back then.

Now, their fortune-telling involves the whole family. They sometimes come in the form of tarot card-reading, tea leaf reading or getting divination from coffee grounds.

The Russian Orthodox Church

Russian church during Christmas
Russia has their Christmas late to accommodate the actual date on their calendar.

As we stated, a holiday in Russia means a Christmas that is heavily influenced by their religion. Russia started off with a pagan culture before they got Christianized. Some of their rituals will seem very pagan-like despite the majority of them being Christian.

These pagan rituals were designed in order to bring a good year of harvest to the land. That was back then. Now that Russia is a Christian country, they transformed and merged the rituals and thus created unique traditions that Russia knows today.

The Church used to be banned from doing anything Christmas-related back in the days of the Soviet era. People during that time still celebrated in secret, though. You can imagine how happy they were to finally celebrate the holidays out in public in 1991 when the Soviet Union was dissolved and Christmas was finally reinstated.

In the modern era, Christmas Eve (January 6th) is filled with long services. This includes the Royal Hours and Vespers combined with the Divine Liturgy. After that, families will go home to have their Holy Supper that consists of 12 dishes meant for the 12 Apostles.

Some very devout families will return to the church to attend the All Night Vigil, a service of both the Eastern Orthodox and Byzantine Catholic churches. In the morning they go back for the Morning Divine Liturgy of the Nativity.

The Holy Supper and the 12 Apostles

On Christmas Eve, the family gathers around the table to have the Holy Supper with the 12 dishes that are supposed to signify the 12 Apostles. They are the staple Russian Christmas food that are always present whenever the holidays are nearing.

The 12 dishes are as follows:

  • Olivier Salad - this salad is a popular staple and is present on any Russian table during Christmas Eve. It is made out of apples, boiled meat, peas, diced boiled potatoes, eggs, carrots, pickles and dressed with a lot of mayo. Of course there are many variations of the salad. Such variations are more common in other post-Soviet countries as well as European ones. But if it has
  • Deviled Eggs - these are hard-boiled eggs cleanly cut in half. The inside is then decorated with a mixture of ingredients that mostly consist of mayo, some spices, pickles, cheese and a bit of seafood(or meat). They taste just as great as they look. Also, the presentation is important for these.
  • Pirozhki (stuffed buns) - you can’t get any more traditional than this. Pirozhki is a pastry stuffed with meat. The outside is golden and crispy while the inside is soft and doughy. The stuffing can also be filled with more than just meat. They could range from vegetable fillers and more meat, or they could be filled with something sweet like fruits and jam.
  • Dried mushroom soup - this is made especially for the cold winter months. This soup is served with a few pirozhki or pelmeni and is usually made with non-butter dough. There are some that serve this in various ways, especially if they plan to keep up with the fasting rules. Some of those rules say they can’t have meat so they replace some key ingredients for it.
  • Kulebyaka (Russian salmon pie) - it is salmon turnover with mushrooms, onions, buckwheat(or rice), dill, eggs and butter. All of that is encased in a crisp puff pastry.
  • Peljmeni (Russian meat dumplings) - it’s dumplings but done in the Russian way. You put ground beef, pork(it can be lamb), garlic and onions in it and sometimes can be stuffed with other non-meat alternatives.
  • Kutya/sochivo - porridge that is made of unground wheat, some rice, barley (or oats with the addition of sweet ingredients such as honey), a bit of jam, some dried fruits and so on.
  • Vzvar (‘boil up’) - this is sweet compote. Compote is jam-like juice made of fresh fruits like apples, pears, prunes, currants, cherries and so on. They mix it with lots of honey and then boil it in water before putting it in a freezer for cooling.
  • Priyaniki (Russian spice/gingerbread cookies) - these are cinnamon and ginger cookies that have soft icing sugar dusted over them.
  • Kolyadki (Russian Christmas cookies with curd cheese) - made of rye flour and stuffed with curd cheese.
  • Pampushky (Ukrainian doughnuts) - instead of having a hole, these are buns filled with jam or other sweet filling. They can be fried or baked.
  • Kiev Cake - this Ukrainian cake used to be made of all kinds of expensive nuts. But these days it is now made of Russian buttercream that is sandwiched between layers of hazel meringue. It is now a holiday tradition in Russia to have this on their table during Holy Supper.

Russia Turns into a Magical Land on Christmas

a woman during the Christma season
A holiday in Russia doesn’t just mean food and fun, it also means family and love.

From the nativity scenes that they take seriously and put everywhere to the carnivals they set up, Russia is the country to be during the holidays.

If you want to stray away from the usual Christmas you’re used to, go to Russia. Or if you think you’ll be unsatisfied with just December 25th, visit Russia after. Their Christmas is in early January anyway.

Enjoy two Christmases this way!

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