Russian Winter Holiday traditions and celebrations are the longest and most anticipated of the year, running from the end of December until mid-January. The Russian New Year’s and Russian Orthodox Christmas season is marked with what a Westerner would call a Christmas tree, but in Russia is called a “New Year Tree,” Novogodnyaya Yolka.
For about 80 years during the Soviet era, all religious celebrations were banned by the government. That’s why New Year’s Eve (Dec 31st ) was celebrated instead of Christmas.
Russian New Year’s Eve
New Year’s, an official public holiday spanning several days, is the most extensive and anticipated holiday for Russians today. The days are spent with family and friends, exchanging gifts, and attending parties and concerts, and always includes lots of food and drinking. Towns and cities have winter markets at their central squares with festive decorations, such as New Year trees and even skating rinks, and can be a place to gather and celebrate New Year’s Eve.
On Dec 31st, most Russian families gather together for a very late dinner. Russian New Year’s tables include traditional dishes such as Olivier Salad (known in the rest of the world as Russian Salad), Herring Salad or Selyodka Pod Shuboi (“Herring under a Fur Coat“), sparkling wine, and tangerines.
Ded Moroz and Snegurochka
The Russian version of Santa, Ded Moroz (Grandfather Frost), brings gifts and places them under the New Year tree. Sometimes Ded Moroz’s granddaughter, Snegurochka (The Snow Maiden), accompanies him.
At 23:55 local time in each of Russia’s numerous time zones, Russians watch the President’s New Year’s speech on TV about the highlights of the past year and plans for the coming new year. At midnight in Moscow, the Kremlin’s Spasskaya Tower chimes and the Russian national anthem begins. That’s the magic moment when the calendar marks the beginning of the new year, people clink their glasses, kiss each other, and give hugs and shout out, S Novym Godom! (Happy New Year!). The full traditional toast is S Novym Godom! S Novym Schastye! (Welcome, New Year! Welcome, New Happiness!) Not only is it traditional to make wishes when the clock chimes, but it’s also a tradition to write your wish down on paper while the clock is chiming, then burn it, pour the ashes into your champagne, and drink it.
Fireworks and Holiday Movies
Many Russians leave the house after midnight to enjoy the numerous fireworks at the squares and open spaces. Most people are up all night going for walks, greeting strangers with S Novym Godom!, wishing them well, and visiting friends, and attending parties.
The fireworks display at Red Square is broadcast throughout the country, and traditionally, it was the biggest and most grand. Currently, the largest display in Moscow is now at Vorobyovy Gory (Sparrow Hills), though fireworks are also launched at 30 other sites around the city. There are fireworks everywhere, and it’s not just the large official displays. It’s also quite common for people to buy and set off fireworks themselves. This typically goes on for several days after New Year’s Eve.
In addition to fireworks, there are some traditional, popular Soviet movies (often holiday themed) that are constantly shown on TV in the days around New Year’s. Ironiya Sudby and Dzhentlmeny Udachi (Irony of Fate, Gentlemen of Fortune) are two of the most popular.
Russian Orthodox Christmas
Nowadays Russian Orthodox Christmas is regaining importance. It occurs on Jan 7th and is celebrated more quietly than New Year’s Eve, with family or close friends, religious services, and of course, food and drink.
Stary Novy God
But, this is not the end of the Russian Winter Holidays. There is also Stary Novy God (literally, Old New Year), celebrated on January 13th according to the Julian or orthodox calendar. This is the smallest celebration of the season and is the last day for New Year’s decorations including New Year Trees.
Fun Russian Winter Holiday Facts:
- Many Russians travel long distances to spend New Year’s Eve at Red Square in Moscow.
- If a child is lucky enough to meet him, Ded Moroz will ask the child to recite a poem or sing a song in return for a gift.
- There is a common Russian tradition to make wishes while the Kremlin’s Spasskaya Tower chimes. It’s believed that these wishes will come true in the coming year.
- Russians believe that how you spend New Year’s Eve indicates how you will live the coming year.
- Traditionally the largest firework display in Russia has taken place at Red Square in Moscow, but you’ll hear and see them throughout the city and countryside all through the holiday season.
- If you visit Russia during the Winter Holidays don’t expect to get much work done because no one is in a serious mood! For about two weeks, from the end of December to the beginning of January, most Russians take time off from work to enjoy the biggest celebration of the year.
- If you ask any Russian – “What’s your favorite holiday of all?,” you are almost certainly going to hear – Novy God, konyechno! (New Year, of course!)
Bring Some Russian Winter Holiday Spirit Home with some traditional Russian Recipes:
Russian Salad Olivier (pronounced Oh-liv-ee-ay)
Russian Herring Under Fur Coat – Selyodka pod Shuboj Salted herring under a “coat” of layers of boiled vegetables and mayonnaise.