Why Russians celebrate Christmas a bit differently.
As the Christmas season came to a close, many brought down their twinkly lights and threw out their trees. But some cultures are still feeling that pre-jolly excitement of the holidays. Orthodox Russians are still in midst of their Christmas (January 7th – 10th) preparations for Grandfather Frost to deliver presents in celebration of the New Year. Here is the history of Russia’s secular Christmas.
History of Soviet Rule on Religion
Soviet rule began in 1917 after the Bolshevik Revolution saw the murder and an ultimate end of imperial rule. Once Communist control began, the country quickly switched from Russian Orthodoxy to Atheism. Religion was seen as something synonymous with imperial power – a way of repressive control. Once the Soviet Union was established in 1922, leaders sought to eliminate religion within society. Among the ways Soviet rule strived for a secular state was by banning the celebration of Christmas and other religious ceremonies. 1925 saw the beginning of the “League of Militant Atheists,” a militia put in place to aggressively prosecute those found performing any kind of religious practice. After years of religious suppression, in 1941, Joseph Stalin sought to revive the Russian Orthodox Church to procure patriotism in response to low morale from recent Nazi attacks against the Soviet Union. By 1943, the Orthodox Church officially reinstated itself as a practicing sect; however, many religious traditions, like Christmas, were still not allowed to be practiced. Once the Soviet Union fell in 1991, Christmas was celebrated again through traditional Orthodox custom. As time progressed and Christmas’ observation became increasingly popular, many of the old Soviet damage remained.
Though predominantly Orthodox, pseudo-atheist practices bleed into religious customs. The concept of “Santa Claus” is inherently too religious for the atheist views of Russia. Instead, children wait for Grandfather Frost, a.k.a Ded Moroz, who travels across the country on his horse-drawn carriage (troika), dawning a blue or red floor-length fur-lined coat, valenki shoes, a long white beard, and a long magic walking stick. Interestingly, Ded Moroz is the only variation of “Santa Claus” that has a single female “helper” – his granddaughter Nastenka (a.k.a Snegurochka/”Snow Maiden”) – acts in place of Santa’s elves. Legend has it, Ded Moroz travels around during the winter months, delivering gifts to children in person and then giving more gifts secretly on December 31st.
Ded Moroz is understood as the “modernized” depiction of Saint Nicholas, patron saint of children, sailors, and prisoners who’ve been wrongly condemned. Saint Nicholas is referred to as the “Wonder-Worker,” and is credited with saving Russia from tragedy many times during his lifetime. Making him a beloved figure within the hearts of all Orthodox practicing Russians.
New Years Tree or Christmas Tree?
Another Christmas staple modified during Soviet control was the “Christmas Tree,” better known then as the “New Year’s Tree.” Though initially banned during religious suppression, Stalin reinstated a “holiday tree,” to boost morale in 1935. Soviet leaders, however, emphasized the non-religious purpose of the tree and instead opted for its use to celebrate the New Year. Unlike a traditional Christmas pine tree, the secular tree is spruce as pine trees were considered as signs of death.
When is Christmas actually celebrated?
The actual celebration of Christmas seems to be celebrated based on personal preference and religious observation. In most cases, a non-religious Christmas is celebrated on New Year’s Eve, while a solely-religious observation of the day is celebrated on January 7th. According to the Russian Orthodox Church, January 7th marks the “biblically accurate” day of Christ’s birth. To keep the “Christ” out of “Christmas,” the day of gift giving is celebrated on New Year’s Eve to create an inclusive event for both religious and non-religious Russians.
Счастливых праздников! (Happy Holidays!)