‘Twas the night before Christmas and as the chestnuts roasted on an open fire, the children asked their grandparents to tell them a story. About a time long ago, when their great-great-great-grandparents celebrated Christmas in the old country.
How did they celebrate this joyous holiday? What were their Russian Christmas traditions?
And this is how it began…
Back in tsarist Russia, my dears, Christmas was celebrated on a different day entirely. Instead of gathering on December 25th like in many other countries around the world, Russian Orthodox Christmas was celebrated on January 7th. This is because back in those days, Russians still followed the old Gregorian calendar.
Much like today, every family had their own Christmas traditions. A typical Orthodox family was quite religious back then, observing major holidays like Christmas and Easter according to timeless church and cultural traditions.
Preparations for Christmas were always thorough and painstaking. The house had to be spotless clean and in order, a Christmas tree was decorated with bright ornaments and candies, and the kitchen buzzed with loud sounds and delicious scents.
Families gathered around the brick oven called “pechka” to sing songs, have a festive meal and celebrate the birth of Christ.
Special foods were cooked and eaten during this time. For weeks before Christmas eve, fish and vegetables were the primary sources of nutrients. Meat was reserved for Christmas day. Luckily Russian rivers were bountiful with lots of different fish varieties.
For the super observant, the day before Christmas was a day of fasting. It was thought that one must not eat until the first star appears in the sky.
As for the Christmas meal, well the tables typically overflowed with food. Typical meat and poultry dishes included pork, goose, turkey, wood grouse and duck. Fried poultry was a popular alternative to baked meats. Dishes were garnished with home made pickled vegetables like cucumbers, tomatoes, and cabbage.
Mouthwatering appetizers included cold meat cuts, pickles and salads, and of course potatoes. Different kinds of pies and cookies that were given to everyone who came to sing Christmas carols.
There were a few particular decorating traditions. A handful of hay was placed under the tablecloth of a Christmas table to remind the family of Jesus’ crib. An iron rod was placed underneath the table where everyone could reach and touch it. This symbolized health and strength.
Once gathered around the table, people ate, drank, wished each other all the best and exchanged Christmas presents. The next day was usually devoted to guests and friends visits.
And so the spirit of Christmas permeated through time and space, leaving us with many old fashioned traditions and introducing a few new ones.
We hope you enjoyed this little tale of Russian Christmas traditions from a long time ago.