History of Christmas and New Year’s Eve in Russia

For most Europeans and Americans, Christmas remains the main winter holiday. Of course, New Year’s Eve is celebrated all over the world, however, the most cheerful and richest gifts for celebrations still fall on Catholic Christmas December 25th. In Russia, the opposite is true: the overwhelming majority of Russians prefer New Year’s Eve.

New Year’s Eve and Christmas holidays in Russia are a little bit tricky. The winter holidays in Russia drag on for several weeks: Russians enthusiastically celebrate first Catholic Christmas, then New Year, after that the Orthodox Christmas – January 7th, and finally on January 13th they celebrate a holiday completely incomprehensible to foreigners: the Old New Year. But the most beloved and revered holiday in this long series of celebrations is New Year’s Eve from December 31st to January 1st. Now it seems that it has always been so. Meanwhile, the tradition of celebrating New Year’s Eve in Russia appeared much later than in Europe.

“Christmas Market” by Buchkuri Alexander, 1906

The tradition of celebrating New Year’s Eve was introduced in Russia by Peter the Great. Before this, the New Year in Russia fell on September 1st, and even earlier on March 1st. However, tsar, wishing to keep up with the West, forbade the celebration of the New Year in the fall, postponing the holiday by a special decree on January 1st.

The first New Year’s Eve in Russia was noisily marked by a parade and fireworks on the night of December 31st to January 1, 1700. Moscow was then the capital, Petersburg has not yet been founded, so all the celebrations took place on Red Square. However, from the new year 1704, the celebrations were moved to the northern capital. The main thing at the New Year’s holiday in those days was not a feast, but mass celebrations.

Christmas fir tree market in Russia
“Christmas Market” by Henry Manizer

The Winter New Year in Russia did not immediately take root. However, Peter the Great was persistent and ruthlessly punished those who, according to the old tradition, tried to celebrate the new year on September 1st. He also strictly watched that by January 1st, the houses of nobles and commoners were decorated with spruce, juniper or pine branches. These branches were supposed to be decorated with fruits, nuts, vegetables, and even eggs. Moreover, all these products served not only as decoration but also as symbols: apples – a symbol of fertility, nuts – the incomprehensibility of divine providence, eggs – a symbol of developing life, harmony and complete well-being. Over time, the Russians got used to the new winter holiday.

Empress Elizabeth I continued the tradition of celebrating the New Year’s Eve, begun by her father. New Year’s Eve celebrations have become an integral part of the palace festivities. Elizabeth, a great lover of balls and amusements, arranged luxurious Christmas trees and masquerades in the palace. Under Catherine II, the New Year was also celebrated on a grand scale. In the 18th century, the Russian New Year’s table became especially intricate: the desire to surprise, amuse guests with unusual and unusual dishes came into the art of cooking

At the beginning of the 19th century, champagne became popular in Russia. At first, the Russians took sparkling wines with suspicion: they were called the “devil’s drink” because of the flying cork and the foamy stream from the bottle. According to legend, champagne gained wide popularity after the victory over Napoleon. In 1813, upon entering Reims, Russian troops, as victors, devastated the wine cellars of the famous Madame Clicquot house. However, Mrs. Clicquot did not even try to stop the robbery, wisely deciding that “Russia would cover the losses.” The astute Madame was right: the fame of the quality of her products spread throughout Russia. Three years later, an enterprising widow received more orders from the Russian Empire than in her homeland.

“Scenes from the family life of Emperor Nicholas I. Christmas tree in Anichkov Palace” watercolor by Aleksey Chernyshov 1840-1850s.

The reign of Emperor Nicholas I refers to the appearance of the first public fir tree in Russia and St. Petersburg. Before that, Russians decorated the house with only coniferous branches. The first dressed up fir tree lit up with lights in the room in 1852. And by the end of the nineteenth century, this beautiful custom had already become familiar not only in Russian cities but also in villages. It was time for soft drinks, ice cream, and cognac. At the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries Russians preferred French, Spanish, fortified, Italian and German wines. Don sparkling wines were made as in imitation of champagne. Of course, people drank vodka, tinctures, and liqueurs; domestic Russian and German beer.

With Christmas in St. Petersburg at the beginning of the 20th century, the season of balls and festivities began. Numerous Christmas trees with obligatory gifts were arranged for children, ice palaces and mountains were built for folk entertainments, free performances were given.
After the revolution, in 1918, by Lenin’s decree, Russia switched to the Gregorian calendar, overtook the Julian calendar by 13 days. February 1, 1918, was immediately declared the 14th. But the Orthodox Church did not accept this transition and announced that it would celebrate Christmas according to the old Julian calendar. Since then, Orthodox Christmas in Russia has been celebrated on January 7th (December 25 according to the old style). Probably, it was then that a paradoxical tradition arose in Russia to celebrate the Old New Year on January 13th, according to the old Julian calendar.

“New Year’s Eve” by Alexander Gulyaev, 1967

In 1919, the new authorities abolished both Christmas and New Year. Former holidays turned into regular working days. But in many families, Russians continued to celebrate the New Year’s Eve secretly, although with great care – they placed Christmas tree behind the tightly curtained windows. Probably, it was in those years that the New Year in Russia began to be celebrated not with masquerades and dances, but with dinner. After all, it was necessary to celebrate secretly, so as not to wake up the neighbors. This continued until 1935. In 1935, the “highest directive” changed. It turned out that the New Year is a wonderful holiday, which can also once again testify to the achievements of the country of the Soviets. Celebrating the New Year in the fifties was no longer considered reprehensible, so it became possible to gather not only in a narrow circle but also in a large company.

The main action on New Year’s Eve was the opening of a bottle of “Soviet champagne” to the battle of the Kremlin chimes. Dances and masquerades were almost completely excluded from the New Year’s Eve program: in cramped apartments, one had to choose: either a table or dances. With the advent of TVs in Soviet families, the table finally won. On New Year’s Eve, television always prepared an extensive entertainment program: the annual Blue Lights were especially popular.

In 1991, with the beginning of the Yeltsin era, after an almost 75-year break, people began to celebrate Christmas in Russia again. January 7th was declared a day off: Christmas services were shown on TV and it explained to the Russians how to conduct the holy day. However, the tradition of celebrating Christmas in Russia has already been lost. Several generations of Soviet people raised in the spirit of atheism did not understand the essence or form of this holiday. So far, the confrontation between secular and church traditions is confidently won by the New Year’s Eve, which for many years holds the position of the beloved family holiday of Russians.


10 facts about the Ethnographic Museum in St. Petersburg

June 3rd, 2020 marks the 97th anniversary of the opening of the Russian Ethnographic Museum in St. Petersburg. Below are ten facts about this unique museum.


International Women’s Day in Russia

The celebration of International Women’s Day in modern Russia is primarily associated with an extra day off and obligatory flowers and gifts for women, while the initial political and social meanings of the date remain almost unaddressed. However, this has not always been so.


Top 5 Russian universities for foreign students

The number of applications from foreign students in Russia increased by 20 percent in 2019. Almost 115 thousand international applicants decided to get higher education in Russia in 2019.


What do the domes of Russian Orthodox churches mean?

Since ancient times, the Christian religion was filled with special signs that were embodied in the architecture of temples. What is the meaning of the shape, color, and the number of domes of the Russian Orthodox Church?

Color of the domes

Gold. The most common color of Orthodox domes represents eternity and heavenly glory. Temples with golden domes were dedicated to Christ and the great church holidays: Christmas, Present, Annunciation. Such chapters crown the Moscow Cathedral of Christ the Savior and Kremlin cathedrals.

Today, domes are not lined with gold, but earlier the metal was dissolved in mercury, and then the resulting amalgam was applied to a hot copper sheet. The gilding process was very expensive and time-consuming. For example, it took 100 kilograms of gold to cover the dome of St. Isaac’s Cathedral in Saint Petersburg.

St. Isaac's Cathedral in Saint Petersburg
St. Isaac’s Cathedral

Blue with stars. Temples with such domes are most often dedicated to the Virgin. The blue color symbolizes the purity of the Virgin Mary, and the stars refer to the Star of Bethlehem, which marked the birth of Jesus Christ.

Green. This color is considered a sign of the Holy Spirit. Most often, it can be found in churches dedicated to the Holy Trinity. One of these buildings is the Holy Trinity Church “Easter cake and Easter”. The idea to give the church the shape of traditional Easter dishes belonged to the customer of construction – Prince Alexander Vyazemsky.

Silver. This color in Orthodoxy is associated with purity and holiness. Churches dedicated to saints are crowned with silver domes – for example, St. Nicholas Church on Lipna near Velikiy Novgorod and St. Sophia Cathedral in Vologda.

The multicolored domes in the Orthodox tradition remind of the beauty of Heavenly Jerusalem. This is how the domes of the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood look like in St. Petersburg and St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow. Foreign travelers admire the colored patterns of the domes and compare them to the scales of a cedar cone, pineapple, and artichoke. This type of head was acquired after the fire of 1595 – then the temple was rebuilt.

St. Basil's Cathedral in Moscow
St. Basil’s Cathedral

Form of the domes

The spherical dome in the Orthodox tradition symbolizes eternity. The Romans began to build temples with similar domes: in the 2nd century, they learned how to build ceilings of a large area without supports. The Roman pantheon built this way in 128 AD has survived to our days.

The onion dome in Orthodox architecture is the embodiment of prayer, the desire for heaven. According to researchers, such a dome on the base of the drum resembles a candle flame. Bulbous chapters are characteristic of Russian architecture of the 16th – 17th centuries.

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral
Alexander Nevsky Cathedral

The tent, instead of the traditional dome, is interpreted in Christianity as the image of the Virgin or the Light of heaven. Tent temples were common in the 16th century, although similar churches were built before. Usually, they were constructed from wood: it was very difficult to repeat the design of the tent in stone.

How many domes does the Orthodox Church have?

One dome reminds believers of the unity of God. One-domed temples were especially popular in pre-Mongol times. The most famous of them is the Church of the Intercession on the Nerl and the Dmitrievsky Cathedral in Vladimir. Both temples were built in the 12th century – they survived the devastating Mongol-Tatar invasions and exist to this day.

Two domes are infrequent and mark the divine and human nature of Jesus Christ.

Three domes are associated with the Holy Trinity. Three chapters crown the St. George Cathedral of St. George Monastery – the oldest monastery in Velikiy Novgorod.

Five domes are a symbol of Jesus Christ and the four evangelists: John, Mark, Luke, and Matthew. Five-domed churches are found in Russia more often than others.

Russian Orthodox church domes
Avraamiev Epiphany Monastery

Seven domes mark seven Orthodox sacraments for the Orthodox, seven Ecumenical Councils (congregations at which the main Christian dogmas were adopted) and seven main Orthodox virtues. Seven-domed cathedrals are not as common as three- or five-domed ones.

Nine domes are associated with nine angelic ranks. According to the Christian tradition, heavenly angels are divided into nine levels: cherubs and seraphim are closest to God, and angels and archangels are closest to man.

Thirteen domes remind of Jesus Christ and his associates, the twelve apostles.

Twenty-five domes mean the praise of the Most Holy Theotokos – the glorification of the Most Holy Virgin with 25 Old Testament prophets. In addition, the number 25 symbolizes the vision of the heavenly throne and the 24 elders surrounding it, described in the Revelation of John the Theologian.

Thirty-three domes symbolize the years of Christ’s life on earth. Such temples were built very rarely.


5 modern music bands you’ll be surprised are Russian

For those who are tired of the mainstream on radio and music channels, here is the list of 5 diverse indie music bands from Russia. These bands do not tailor their songs to artificial format frames and fashion trends, they remain honest with themselves and their listeners. Get to know them too – after all, these bright performers are certainly worthy of your attention.


Russian Police chorus’ amazing singing of pop songs

The soloists of the Russian academic choir of the Ministry of the Interior became the stars of YouTube.


6 dishes to try in a Russian restaurant

Russia is a multinational country where you can taste the most different, sometimes very exotic, dishes of many nationalities – from Tatar chak-chak (dough with honey dessert) to Yakut planed (freshly frozen fish or meat). The traditional cuisine is found in any Russian restaurant. Here is a list of 6 dishes that you must absolutely try in Russia.

Pelmeni (dumplings)

Russian cuisine dumplings

Pelmeni is probably the most famous Russian dish abroad. The dish first appeared in the Urals at the end of the XIV century. The name “pelmeni” comes from a similar word of the Finno-Ugric language group, which literally means “bread ear”. Classic dumplings are made of minced meat consisting of beef, lamb, pork, wrapped in an unleavened dough made from flour, eggs, and water. Ready dumplings are boiled in salted water. Served with butter, mustard, sour cream or other spices. Many generations of Russians are familiar with the tradition of molding dumplings with the whole family. The larger the family, the greater the volume of dumplings. Part of them was cooked immediately, the rest was frozen.

Blini (pancakes)

blini Russian food

Blini are the Russian pancakes, the oldest dish of Russian cuisine, which first appeared in the IX century. The recipe for cooking one of the most famous Russian dishes is quite simple – milk, eggs, and salt; but the cooking process is akin to craftsmanship, which not every hostess can master. The liquid dough is poured onto the frying pan, the task of the cook is to bake a ruddy even pancake without lumps and prevent it from burning ahead of time. The thinner the pancakes, the higher the level of skill. In Russia, there is still a saying “First pancake is lumpy”, meaning failure at the beginning of any endeavor. Usually, pancakes are served hot with sour cream, butter, honey, or used for wrapping various fillings – meat, fish, vegetables, fruits, and other toppings. Special chic are blini with caviar.

Kasha (porridge)

best traditional russian dishes kasha

Kasha, like soups, is a very important part of Russian cuisine. Russians, especially in childhood, eat porridge for breakfast – kasha is healthy and nutritious. Semolina, pearl barley, oatmeal, buckwheat, and a few dozen more varieties of kasha are available. Porridge will most likely be offered for breakfast at a hotel, cafe, student cafeteria or during a visit to a Russian home. It is served hot, generously flavored with butter. As they say in Russia, you will not spoil the porridge with butter, which means that something useful will not be harmful even in large quantities.

Shchi (soup)

popular russian food

Shchi is a cabbage soup, which was invented back in the XI century. The list of ingredients includes meat, seasonings and sour dressing from fermented cabbage. However, the ingredients may vary depending on the kind of shchi (lean, fish, green) and the culinary skill of the chef – many Russians prepare this soup according to their own recipes. Shchi is traditionally served with rye bread, seasoned with sour cream and spices.

Pirogi (pies)

Russian cuisine pirogi

Pirogi in Russian cuisine has about the same meaning as pizza in the Italian one. Russian pies are baked mainly from savory dough with various fillings – from meat and fish to fruit and cottage cheese. Pirogki are the small one portion sized pastries with fillings. Vatrushki, kulebyaki, kulichi, kurniki is not a complete list of varieties of this dish. You can consider yourself lucky if you can try homemade pirogi. However, in many catering establishments, Russian pies are not inferior in quality to the ones cooked at home.

Beef stroganoff

Russian food beef stroganoff

It is known that beef stroganoff is included in the menu of international cuisine as a Russian national dish. Finely chopped, fried pieces of meat in a thick tomato and sour cream sauce first appeared in Odessa on the so-called “open table”, which was hosted by the governor-general of Novorossia count Alexander Grigorievich Stroganov. Of course, this dish was not invented by Stroganov himself, an exceptionally rich and famous man, the last of the kind of count and baronial branches of the Stroganovs. This original dish was invented at the end of the XIX century by one of the cooks of the count. Later, Odessa chefs introduced their favorite dish into cookbooks, giving its the name of Stroganov and all-Russian fame.


Architects have developed a new modern Russian style

Moscow architectural bureau Megabudka presented a draft of the national Russian architectural style. The concept includes the main directions in architecture, characteristic for different periods of Russian history. There is a wooden architecture, as well as Luzhkovsky and country styles, according to the website of the authors of the project.


The “Golden Mask” festival showed its ballet program

Launched in Moscow, the Golden Mask Festival has begun to show its ballet program. One after another, the jury and the public were immediately presented with a whole block of nominated performance.