Most Russians celebrate an Eastern Orthodox Christmas. And because they use the Julian calendar, their Christmas is 13 days later than in most of the Western world, which puts it on...you guessed it, January 7. Yeah, I am not surprised either. For many years while Russia was ruled by the Communist Party and was part of the Union of Socialist Soviet Republics (you might remember it as the USSR) the church and most Christmas traditions were banned. But some survived. Christmas trees were replaced by New Year's trees. Babouschka was banned as well. I know that when I say "babouschka" you think of an old lady with a shawl wrapped around her head shuffling through the snow on her way to buy beets at the train platform somewhere in the wastes of Siberia. Or you think that it's the Russian word for "grandmother." But you are an idiot and you are wrong. Okay, I'm sorry about that. You are not an idiot. And you are not wrong either. But when you capitalize it, Babouschka becomes the name of the Russian Christmas figure who brings gifts to the children. History has it that she refused to aid the Three Wise Men on their journey, so now she is destined to wander the countryside looking for the Baby Jesus. Someone should tell her that he grew up and died a long time ago, then maybe she could sit down. But anyway, the upside is that as the wanders about looking for Christ she stops at the house of all the children and leaves them gifts. Lucky kids.
As would be expected, the Russians traditionally have a big feast on Christmas Eve. When the first star appears in the night sky the feast begins, and it lasts for 12 courses, in honor of the twelve apostles. And while the feast is meatless it is nonetheless festive, with dishes like fish, beet soup, bread, cabbage stuffed with millet, porridge, and tons of other stuff. Doesn't that sound good? Well, everything but the beet soup. And the cabbage stuffed with millet. And the porridge. Okay, so it doesn't sound especially good. But it does sound fun, especially if you had a big family.
One of the coolest Russian Christmas traditions is that on Christmas Eve, before Mass, there is usually a procession. Residents of the town follow the local church authority to and around the church; all of them carrying lanterns or candles. It makes for quite a spectacle from what I hear, and I think it's cool. I would love to do something like that on the way to Christmas Mass. I think it would be beautiful, don't you? Or eerie if you didn't know what was going on.
Honestly, I can say that Russian Christmas is pretty much exactly how I expected it would be. Lots of family, tons of food, a little church, and presents delivered by an old lady. Sounds good to me. It's actually a lot like Christmas here because it manages to strike a balance between the commercial and religious side of things. And the rise and rebirth of the church in Russia means that Christmas there is for the moment growing in a balanced way, not leaning more and more towards the commercial side of things like in many countries. And in a way that is refreshing. I could really do without the beet soup though.