Elena was born in Western Siberia, in a city called Omsk (on trans-Siberian line). She grew up in Russia, though she also spent the last 15 years living in Ireland. She’s a wife and a mum to a little boy, and she now lives in the UK.
Elena is happy to share stories from her motherland, Russia as well as from Ireland.
Latest posts by Elena Morozova (see all)
- “Svyatki”: A Post-Christmas Divination Tradition in Russia - January 11, 2018
- Vinegret – Traditional Russian Beetroot Salad - January 1, 2018
- “Herring Under the Fur Coat” (“Seledka Pod Shyboi”) Salad - December 31, 2017
Yes, it is that time of the year again! Personally I love exploring other people’s traditions, as well as creating new ones with my family.
I came from a traditional Russian family, where I was the only child. Luckily, I was fortunate to have both sets of grandparents AND great-grandparents alive for most of my childhood. I was surrounded by warmth and kindness from a very young age. As I was the only child, they all devoted their spare time to me and spoilt me with it. So when I think back to the Winter holidays, it surely brings a lot of happy memories, and I would like to share some with you. I also wanted to tell you a bit about our famous Russian New Year’s and Christmas traditions, and how we celebrated those two significant holidays.
In most of Europe as well as other parts of the world, Christmas is celebrated a week before the New Year… but not in Russia. I had to educate a lot of my friends who are not very familiar with Russian traditions and history about that. So when do Russians actually celebrate Christmas? It’s on the 7th of January, and our Christmas traditions are quite different from most other countries.
Growing up, whenever I saw Pope doing his ceremonial speech on TV on the Christmas Day, I would ask my parents: “Why we don’t celebrate Christmas in December like they do in Europe?” The answer was always the same. They told me that Peter the Great (a Russian Tsar) moved our calendar by 2 weeks forward and that’s why our Christmas day is almost 2 weeks late. This, of course, was something my parents either made up or heard from someone else. The real reason lies with the Orthodox Church in Russia, which uses the old ‘Julian’ calendar and not the Gregorian, like they do in Western countries.
The New Year’s Eve
The first and most important thing that you should remember is that the New Year’s Eve is a much bigger celebration for Russians than the Christmas Day or the Christmas Eve, which falls on January 6th. Both evenings are marked by a festive dinner, though the one on Christmas is always much smaller and would probably be held with fewer attendants. Furthermore, Russians do not exchange presents on Christmas. It’s usually done on the New Year’s Eve or the 1st of January.
The New Year’s Eve has always been one of my favorite celebrations of the year, since I can remember. There is a good reason for this. You see, my birthday is at the end of July. I was born and raised in Siberia and we had 3 months of summer holidays away from school. Most of my friends went to camp or to visit their relatives elsewhere, hence July was a popular month to get away. So whenever I planned a party, not a lot of my friends were around.
In addition, since it was so close to September (when a new school term usually starts) – I would get school shoes or school bags for presents, which is not much appreciated by a kid. Therefore, I was much more excited by the thought of the other set of presents – on the New Year’s Eve! Even though most of them would be mandarins and sweets packed in a box or a bag.
The Christmas Tree
The New Year’s Eve and the days leading up to it, were always filled with joy, families getting together with friends and some distant relatives. I got to see my cousins and more friends than on any other holiday. We would always put up a real Christmas tree around the 20th of December. It was a big deal waiting for it to arrive and get all the decorations out of the boxes. Our family’s decorations were big baubles my granddad brought from Czech Republic. They were massive and we stored them carefully in their individual boxes.
There were also 3 sets of tree lights which could be controlled with a special switch, which my dad put together when he studied radio-engineering. Since most Russians live in apartment buildings, there are no lights or floats that could be put up outside, but there are plenty of decorations inside the house. They include the popular snowflakes, usually cut out of paper. In my case, my aunt taught me how to make them along with many other festive ideas, like folding napkins. She was always the creative one in our family and I must say that it left a mark on me.
Under the Christmas tree we would normally place large cotton balls to give it an appearance of snow. At the front of the tree, we would usually put a figure of the “Father Frost” and his granddaughter “Snegurochka”. My family did not have a special figure for Snegurochka, so we would just dress up one of my dolls into a blue and white outfit and place it next to the Father Frost.
The New Year’s Party, “Yolka”
Most people in Russia usually have holidays off from the 30th or 31st of December until the 10th of January. Also, around this time there would be several children’s parties called “Yolka”, literally translated as the “Christmas tree”. Some of these parties would be held in kindergartens and some in concert halls.
There is a big one held in Kremlin every year. During the party, everyone would make a big circle around the tree and then sing while walking around it. All the children would then call out for the Father Frost (“Ded Moroz”) and his granddaughter (”Snegurochka”) to appear.
The New Year’s Food
It’s almost impossible not to talk about food when it comes to the New Year’s Eve. There are always some regulars on the table such as Olivie and “Under the Fur Coat” salads, canapes (little pieces of bread with different toppings) and winter specialties – the pickled vegetables and mushrooms.
Preparations usually start on the night of the 30th. The hostess would boil some eggs and vegetables for the salads and leave them to cool off until the morning. If there is a baked dessert (and there is normally one cake, for sure), such as honey cake or “Gorka” (meaning a pile or small hill), it would also be done the night before.
As is often the case, all the cooking will be done by same the person who is hosting the New Year’s Eve dinner. I know that it sounds like too much work and it is when you actually realise how much food will be there on the table! In reality, there’s a special flow to the New Year’s Eve preparations.
Getting Ready For the Party
Most households would decide on the menu 2-3 weeks ahead of the New Year’s Eve. The women would also dress up according to the Chinese animal calendar’s tradition. There are usually specific colors associated with each animal that would mean prosperity, for example. Some women would even go as far as getting dressmakers to sew them a dress or an outfit specifically for the New Year’s Eve celebration.
You are probably wondering, why would they make so much fuss? Well, it’s quite simple. There is a strong belief in Russia, which literally says that: “how you will meet the New Year, is how you are going to spend it”. So in order to have a good year, one must meet it well! This would extend to one’s house décor, food, dress code, drinks and company.
Then there is the table setting with all the special glasses and cutlery, napkins folded in a particular way, oranges and lemons sliced on small plates amongst other things. During the day, there would always be one specific movie shown on TV, called “Ironiya Sydbu” (translated as “The Irony of Destiny”). It’s about a guy who ends up in the wrong city after drinking too much with his friends, and misses the New Year’s Eve celebrations with his fiancée. This movie has been shown on December 31st every single year since it was made. Its music and songs are the nation’s favorite. We almost never get tired of watching it over and over again.
Another thing that we always did, was to get the Bengal lights and light them up once the midnight strikes, wishing each other a “Happy New Year”. Hence they would always be placed somewhere close to the festive table.
There would always be some fun Russian music to accompany the dinner. In some households there would even be dancing right after the meal. The TV is always on in anticipation for the president’s speech just before midnight (Moscow’s time). In addition, there are usually several music and talk shows on every year, which would be watched all over Russia. Those would normally be pre-recorded and would be hosted by numerous Russian celebrities. These programs are likely to go on until the early hours of the morning.
What also usually happens after midnight, is that you get numerous calls from friends and family, who are away or do not live in the same city. They generally wish” Happy New Year” first and then ask what are you doing and what is on the festive table this year. Yes, we are that obsessed with food!
One of the many things that I always enjoyed, was digging into the leftovers on January 1st. There are always several salads left, canapes piled onto one plate. All the leftovers would be squeezed into a fridge, which would be completely full. Since it’s usually -20C in Siberia during December and January, we would try to stock up on food. Plus, since it’s a holiday a lot of places would be closed anyway.
I remember just getting bits of everything onto a plate and then hitting the couch until early afternoon. My parents and grandparents would usually go out into the forest to ski (something I was never good at). Or , they would go out to see some of their friends, leaving me to enjoy the food and TV.
Christmas is celebrated in a slightly different way. It is more of a low key affair. Usually, much less food would be made. The focus would be on canapes and one main dish in terms of the festive dinner. It could be roasted chicken, pelmeni (little parcels filled with meat) or vareniki (parcels filled with cooked vegetables). On the night of January 6th a local church would hold a midnight mass that would last for 2 hours.
As children, we rarely went to any of these affairs due to the extreme cold. Since one is expected to stand outside the church for some part of the mass. Some of my family members were church-goers but others were not. However, everyone was baptised and we celebrated every religious holiday.
We are probably one of the longest celebrating nations, since after January 7th we look forward to more holidays. On the 13-14th of January we wave goodbye to the “Old Year” and then fully accept the “New Year”. And at this point, most people would be going back to work.