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Monday, January 4, 2010


A Happy (past) New Year and a Merry (upcoming) Christmas!

What?? Why are you looking at me like that? Did I say something weird?

Oh, my greeting?

Well, it's very seasonal, if you're Russian. Yes, I guess it sounds a little strange in English, but around major holidays, Russians add a greeting with the upcoming and the recently-past holiday.

No, it wasn't that?

What? You mean Christmas? No, I don't have it wrong. It's in three days.

That's right. January 7th. Orthodox (Eastern Christian) Russians date their holidays according to the Julian calendar (Western Churches and the secular world go by the Gregorian). As a result, Russian Christmas (and all major holidays) are 13 days late.

Mind you, this doesn't apply to Easter. Easter has its own table of date computations, but that's another story entirely.

So what else is different?

Modern Russian Christmas has its tree, but it's a fairly new tradition, imported in the 19th century from Germany by the fashionable nobility. When my mother was a child, in the early 20th century, there was no Christmas tree tradition in her village.

So what did they do?

Well, they didn't do a pile of presents on Christmas day. They didn't really do presents at all.

Her village was in the far south of Russia, almost on top of the Ukraine border. Winters were cold and snowy, nights were long and dark (still are, I'm sure). The whole of Yuletide was a time of celebrations, from early-to-mid December all the way to Epiphany (also called Theophany, that's the feast of Christ's Baptism in the Jordan river), on January 19 by the Julian calendar (January 6 for the West). There were games and songs and meetings and divinations.

I could write a book on everything that went on, especially if I started adding Yuletide recipes like poppyseed rolls and other good stuff.

Let me just tell you about some of the divinations.

Since the majority of the fortune-telling was about marriage, children, and length of life, you can imagine that it was mostly girls and women who were involved.

Divinations were dangerous. You had to divest yourself of the protective items you wore every day, like belts and ties, and of course crosses, and you had to turn holy objects face-down to allow spirits to come in and reveal hidden secrets. Naturally, these spirits were tricksters and you could never fully trust them, and there were rituals not only to summon them, read the omens, but also to discern the truth of the telling (and of course to protect yourself and send the spirits back where they belong).

Predicting the future involved dripping melted wax into cold water and reading the shapes; listening for names heard on the wind; watching for shadows in candle-lit mirrors; offering treats to chickens and watching whose offering would be chosen. And many other rituals and variations on them.

Spirits were not the only ones playing tricks on the women assembled to read the future. Boys tried very hard to be the “predictors” of their fate by whispering things into eager ears and trying to touch uncovered skin. Rival girls tried to disrupt the sessions. Yuletide was both a propitious and a dangerous time, both in the spirit, and the mundane realm.

And when Christmas Eve came, no one ate until the first star appeared in the sky. The church service was a special Christmas vespers (evening) service, and the celebration began afterward. Late at night, groups of children and youth roamed through the village singing songs of praise and blessings in exchange for rewards of food, ribbons, or money. The loot was collected in a common bag and shared later at a picnic in a warm, borrowed barn (remember, it was cold outside, and snowdrifts were piled high against the houses).

Whoever didn't give at least a token gift to the singers would be subjected to jeering, ribald, and cursing verses describing them as scrooges, tight-purses, and promising them a befitting year or poor harvest and worse luck.

Thus the Christmas singing was not quite as decorous as the caroling we know, but more like trick-or-treating (with actual food rather than candy).

My own kids are quite lucky. We celebrate Western Christmas in my Midwestern husband's tradition, and I bake my mother-in-law's cookies. We have eggnog and hot cider. Then we still mark Russian Christmas with token presents, Russian food (or at least a Russian treat), and tales of Russian traditions. Our tree goes up shortly after Thanksgiving and stays up until Orthodox Epiphany (or at least until after Russian Christmas, if we don't have the patience to wait that long).


Masha Holl was raised on magic tales, Russian literature, Mozart, Verdi, and French cuisine. Today, she writes romantic science fiction and fantasy—that's spaceships, alien universes, and very close encounters—to the sounds of Metal Rock. Romance brought her to America, and here she stayed, so expect love and happy endings in her stories.

She studied language and literature first in Paris (France, that is), and then at the University of Wisconsin, where she was awarded a Master's degree. She has taught Russian and French language and culture both to bored and to excited college students, and she is always eager to share her love of the writing craft with whoever will listen to her speeches. And don't even get her started on myths and folklore.

Her novella The Brightest Heaven, and her short story The Joining, are available from The Wild Rose Press. You can find excerpts on her website at


sherry said...

This is a very interesting post. I enjoy finding out about other countries what holiday traditions they have actually I enjoy everything I can learn about them.

Hywela Lyn said...

What a fascinating post, Masha. I loved hearing all about the Russian Christmas and its customs. Your children seem to have the best of two worlds, it must be such a magical time or them.

SFWriterMasha said...

My kids certainly don't complain about the extra celebration. On the other hand, having a mother who's a folklorist... How many middle schoolers know about variants in folk tales? They get tired of the theory! :D

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