Traditional Russian Christmas making a comeback

Christmas tree in Vilnius

Photo from Vilnius by Guillaume Speurt, released for public use via Wikimedia Commons.

TUESDAY, JANUARY 7: For nearly 1,000 years, Russians celebrated Christmas. Histories, including the TITLE by William Crump say that this custom ran from the Christian conversion of Russia (dated to 933 at the hands of Saint Vladimir of Kiev) to the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. Traditional religion was suppressed and later a Winter Festival was encouraged. During its millennium of Christmas celebrations, these Eastern Christians followed the Orthodox custom of a weeks-long Nativity fast and then 12 days of Christmas. Christmas trees and carols were popular. Leo Tolstoy wrote about Russian Christmas customs in War and Peace.

Today, a blend of holiday customs are found, each year, across the vast nation: from no observance at all—to some Western Christmas celebrations in December—to more traditional Russian Christmas on January 7. That later date is based on the Russian Orthodox church’s continued use of the old Julian calendar. In Crump’s entry on these Russian traditions, he says that borscht, fish, blini and piroshky are popular. Christmas trees are back in many homes as well as Nativity scenes.

In fact, trees are popular in many cities, a point that turned up in international headlines in December when Vladivostok’s official city tree crashed to the ground in a wind storm. The tree was 90 feet tall and weighed 15 tons. Setting it up again was quite a project!

Russian Patriarch Kirill issued his Nativity message in December. The English translation says, in part: “The Nativity was the climax of human history. Man has always been searching for God: but the Lord chose to reveal Himself in full in His Only Son.”

One of the most stirring traditions at Russian Christmas is music. This form of Orthodox worship is limited to the human voice, which means the carols and chanted liturgies are gorgeous. The Smithsonian Folkways collection offers a terrific collection of Nativity music recorded half a century ago at a Russian Orthodox church in New York state.

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