Due to the gap between Gregorian and Julian calendars, Russia goes about the holidays slightly later and slightly different. Dairmid Gunn explains.
The Festive Season in Russia is a complex affair, mainly, but not totally, because of the observance by the Russian Orthodox Church of the Julian calendar instead of the Gregorian calendar.
The Julian calendar, which was introduced by Julius Caesar in 46 BC, was based on a calculation that the solar year (the time between the spring and autumn equinoxes) was 365.25 days.
In 1582 Pope Gregory XIII introduced a calendar that reflected more accurately the time of the solar year — a change that was to create an increasing difference between the two calendars.
In the mid 18th century Britain adopted this Gregorian calendar when the difference between it and the former calendar was 10 days. It was not until 1918 that the new Russian state followed suit, but its church clung stubbornly to the old Julian calendar.
The dates of Christmas and New Year in Russia
Now in 2010 there is a difference of 13 days between the two calendars. This means that the Russian Christmas falls on 7 January 2011 and not on 25 December.
As far as Russian Orthodox worshippers are concerned, 7 January is the real Christmas. The Russian New Year on 14 January can also be celebrated, although this is of lesser importance.
New Year celebrations in Russia
Nationally, New Year is the focal point for celebrations for the festive season. For over 70 years after the Revolution in 1917 the Soviet Union was militantly atheistic with limited or nil tolerance of Christian feasts.
The International Workers’ Day on 1 May and the anniversary of the Revolution on 7 November were the great secular celebrations that dominated the Soviet year, but New Year was the time for the general winter celebration. Even now most of the Russian greetings cards make only reference to the New Year, and Grandfather Frost takes the place of Father Christmas.
On New Years Eve families and friends gather in Russian homes to enjoy a traditional Russian salad enriched by a variety of ingredients and laced with liberal quantities of mayonnaise. Other cold dishes are on offer, and the drink for the occasion is usually champagne.
Just before New Year the President gives a short address on television, after which the cameras pan on to Red Square to show the crowds gathered there. When the Spasskaya Tower Clock in the Kremlin wall chimes midnight, toasts are proposed and wishes made. If gifts are given, they are presented then (if not before.)
When the champagne runs out, more modest drinks of wine and beer are drunk by the more moderate drinkers and cognac or vodka by the more seasoned imbibers. Parties go on until the early hours of the morning.
Christmas in Russia: a more sober affair
By comparison, the Russian Christmas is a more sober affair as it is a religious celebration. The food is there in plenty and the drinks are not in short supply.
But the 7 January need not be the end of the Festive Season. In a recent Russian newspaper article there was an account of a bon viveur who started his celebrations on 25 December and ended them on 14 January. For some, at least, the two calendars have their appeal.
Dairmid Gunn / Expatica
Before serving at the British Embassy in Moscow in the 1960s, Dairmid Gunn lived with a Russian family in Paris. He is now involved in building bridges with Russia through the Scotland-Russia Forum.
Photos: D. Boyarrin, AFP