Russian Language Blog

And It’s Christmas Time Again! Posted by on Jan 4, 2011 in Culture, Traditions

At 11:55pm on December 31, as I was about to raise my glass to the New Year, it occurred to me that, given «разница во времени» [time difference], my Russian friends were just about to wake up to a massive «похмелье» [hangover]. «Жизнь на западе имеет свои преимущества» [Western life has its advantages], I mused, thinking primarily of the geographic ones that allow us to celebrate some time after most of the world has gone to bed.

Now, of course, it’s early January and the holiday season in the US is over. Done. Finished. Christmas trees are lying at the curb. At the same time, in Russia the holidays are really just starting:

January 1-5 are official «нерабочие дни» [days off] known as «Новогодние каникулы» [New Year holidays]. Since this year January 1 fell on Saturday, «выходной день» [a weekend day], Russians will be compensated by taking an extra weekday off, Thursday, January 6th.

January 7 is «Рождество Христово» [Christmas] and another day off. This year it falls on a Friday and thus Russians end up with an uninterrupted string of 10 days off!

The reason Christmas in Russia is celebrated after the New Year is simple – «Русская православная церковь» [Russian Orthodox Church] uses «юлианский календарь» [Julian calendar], not the Gregorian one. Julian calendar dates are also referred as «по старому стилю» [according to the old style]. So when you hear your Russian friends talking about celebrating «Старый Новый год», you’ll know that they are talking about celebrating a New Year «по старому стилю».

The Julian calendar is not a terribly accurate one, it seems (no wonder it’s been replaced). Over the years the discrepancy between the two calendars «всё увеличивается» [is increasing] at the rate of «один день» [one day] every «сто двадцать восемь лет» [128 years]. In the next century, Russian Christmas will move to «восьмое января» [January 8th]. Will this lead to a further increase in the number of «нерабочие праздничные дни» [holiday days off] in Russia?

«Канун Рождества» [Christmas Eve] is not the time for «застолье» [feast] since traditionally 6 weeks before Christmas are spent in «Рождественский пост» [the Christmas fast]. This means more than simply going without meat, dairy and eggs, but includes the time for reflection and «очищение от грехов» [absolution from sin]. Furthermore, «Рождественский сочельник» [Christmas Eve] is the time of an even stricter fast «до первой звезды» [until the first star]. This fast is broken with «сочиво» – a dish made out of wheat grain boiled in water and mixed with some honey and walnuts.

Some of the Russian readers of this blog will undoubtedly remember this commercial from years back (has it really been 15 years?!). It’s Christmas Eve at Catherine the Great’s palace and everyone is enjoying a sumptuous feast. That is everyone except for the famous Russian «полководец» [general] Count Suvorov. When asked by the Empress: «А что это у нас граф Суворов ничего не ест, а?» [And why is Count Suvorov not eating anything, eh?], the Count replies with «Да ведь пост, матушка. До первой звезды нельзя… Ждем-с…» [It’s fast, little mother. Can’t eat ‘til the first star… A-waiting…] The Empress immediately awards her general a star. This, of course, is completely fictional story.

If you want to get into the mood «в преддверии Рождества» [in the run-up to Christmas, lit: on the threshold of Christmas], I strongly encourage you to read «Ночь перед Рождеством» [The Night Before Christmas] by «Николай Гоголь» [Nikolay Gogol]. If you are pressed for time or can’t find a copy of the book, read the (English-language) synopsis here and watch the (Russian-language) cartoon or a movie. There’s also a wonderful poem «Рождественская звезда» [the Christmas Star] by «Борис Пастернак» [Boris Pasternak]. Oh, and don’t throw away that Christmas tree just yet!

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