Christmas around the World; Russia
When the religion-hating Soviet Union imploded in 1991, creating (or recreating) 14 countries, traditions that had been buried in the memories of an older generation sprang to life again, and all it took was the slightest breath of freedom.
In the early 1990s, when we spoke of Russia, we meant the vast, eastern European stronghold of nations from Lithuania in the far northwest to Kyrgyzstan (Kirghiz) in the far southeast. Today, we mean a large, sprawling country bounded on the north by the Arctic Ocean on the north, the Pacific Ocean to the east, China and Mongolia to the south, and many of the 14 countries to the west.
And Christmas is, once again, a holiday, though as part of the Eastern Orthodox religion and calendar the celebration actually takes place on January 7. This puts New Year’s celebrations before Christmas parties, and can be disorienting to Westerners who are used to the opposite.
Forget preconceptions; in fact, let go of time and date, and simply enjoy. Do see the Christmas tree in Moscow’s Red Square (the one that has Lenin and Stalin rolling in their graves, and good riddance). On the dinner table, expect a mound of hay in memory of Christ’s manger, a sparkling white tablecloth that symbolizes His blanket, and a sumptuous but meatless meal on Christmas Eve, called Holy Supper.
The meal doesn’t start until the first star is visible in the sky. Then, the householder lights the center candle on the table to represent the Light of Christ. An evergreen tree, called a yolka, is decorated before the meal, which we in the West would likely a buffet.
This meal, the Nativity Fast, breaks a fast of 40 days, during which no meat has been eaten. In intensely religious households, the fast may also include wine, oil and dairy, but this tradition – begun in the Middle Ages – is dying out. In addition, the prohibition against wine, oil and dairy is lifted on certain days.
Of course, both the fast and the celebration depend on whether the local church is using a Gregorian or the old Julian calendar. Before the meal can begin, the father leads the family in the Lord’s Prayer, and the mother blesses all with a cross of honey on the forehead. The first bite of food is a bread called pagache, symbolically dipped in honey (the sweetness of life) and grated garlic (the bitter). Pagach is essentially a loaf of round white bread stuffed with potatoes or cabbage (or both), and infinitely better tasting than it sounds.
The “Holy Supper” is made up of 12 different foods, representing the 12 Apostles. Foods vary, of course, depending on geography, climate and level of devotion. These are, besides the bread:, mushroom soup; grain porridge, or kutia (imagine raisin oatmeal with honey); baked cod, pike, or carp; fresh apricots and figs; nuts; pierogi; pampushky (jam-filled doughnuts); slow-cooked, spicy kidney beans; and kisiel (a puree of dried fruits thickened with potato starch or flour). For beverages, have either Russian spiced tea (similar to chai tea) and sbiten, a cinnamon-and-honey beverage flavored with jam.
Stuffed so full you can barely move, you join the family in the living area, where anxious children can finally rip open the presents Santa brought them. This childish excitement is almost universal among Western (Christian) tradition, so you will feel right at home. Well, almost, once you adjust to the idea of a blue-suited Santa called Grandfather Frost (Ded Moroz).
Afterward, Midnight Mass. Western religions, including Catholicism, have given up much of the pomp and ceremony of mass, leaving something that seems more like watered-down Lutheranism. Even the Anglicans do better. But nothing tops an Eastern Orthodox mass. Gold is the predominant color, from gold vestments to golden candles, and even including the gold leaf-and-trim on walls, paintings and the floor. This panoply of light, color and sound is overlaid with the fragrance of beeswax candles and incense as the Patriarch, or First Hierarch, swings the golden censer. Be prepared to be awed; it is as though Russians, on a diet of too much communism and not enough pageantry, are celebrating for dead relatives. In fact, some deeply Orthodox Russians will set extra plates at the table for those relatives, or for any passing stranger in need of a meal.
After getting to bed at 3 a.m. and waking again at about 9, your host family will bundle you up and go around visiting family members, neighbors and friends, where everyone will press you to eat something, drink something, and sing Christmas carols.
It’s okay, they know you don’t speak Russian, so you can lip-synch with guiltless abandon!