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Russian holidays explained

Like in any other country, holidays are an integral part of culture in Russia. What makes Russia different from other countries, though, is that their holidays present a very mixed picture. Official and unofficial, professional and private, old and new holidays coexist more or less successfully in their lives. Russians owe that to our highly confused historical development. Some of Russian holidays are not even compatible with others. I am talking about revived old religious holidays and preserved though renamed Soviet ones. Some holidays are purely official and have zero meaning to Russians. Others, on the other hand, have great emotional gravity to them. Needless to say, knowing Russian holiday tradition is the key to understanding both its complex culture and its people.  Note that most of the information in this article also applies to all other CIS countries, however some changes may apply.  For example, Lithuania

New Year’s Day comes first on the list of holidays. Think about how popular Christmas is in your country. It will give you a pretty good idea of what New Year is to Russians. When Communists took power they banned all religious holidays, including the biggest one – Russian Orthodox Christmas. The New Year quickly took its place both on the calendar and in people’s hearts. It also took all Christmas’s traditional attributes such as beautifully decorated Christmas tree (which became New Year tree), gifts, feasts, etc. New Year’s Day remains by far the most eagerly anticipated and most lavishly celebrated holiday in Russia. The start of a new year bringin about a chance, however illusional, to start a new, happy life is especially appealing to Russians. Lavish preparations for the holiday start weeks before January 1. Yet, in a lot of ways Russian New Year is different from American Christmas.  American Christmas is a family holiday. Russian New Year is more of a party thing. By midnight of December 31 families and friends across Russia get together around dinner tables laden with sumptuous dishes. They watch the President address the nation in his solemn yearly 5-minute speech. Strikes of the Spasskaya Tower Clock (Kremlin wall) takes place instead of the ball-dropping countdown in New York, marking the end of the old year. And after the last strike the real party begins. Champagne is a traditional drink for the first half hour of the brand new year, however when it runs out, vodka takes its place. While New Year’s Eve is still a work- day lucky Russians get two days off in a row on January 1 and 2, so they can indulge in all-night festivities. A lot of people, especially those under 40, stay up until 5 or 6 AM.  Crowds of people go out in the streets in the middle of the night, gather around huge lit-up New Year trees put up all around town, visit friends and relatives (often without calling ahead, they just knock on their doors).  

The next important holiday is Russian Orthodox Christmas, January 7. It was reintroduced as an official holiday with the fall of the communist rule, and has been observed ever since. Unlike Christmas in Europe and the USA Russian Orthodox Christmas retains its original, purely religious nature. There it is mostly about church services and praising Jesus Christ rather than exchanging gifts or getting together with one’s family. That is why while it means a lot to those more or less religious, to the rest of Russians it is just yet another holiday AND a whole day off.

Then comes January 14 and… you are not going to believe it!.. yet another New Year’s Day! No, Russians have not gone completely insane. It actually has to do with the fact that Russia is mostly Orthodox, not Catholic, and with the lenght of the solar year. I apologize in advance for oversimplifying the explanation, if you want exact science, please go to Wikipedia and type "Gregorian calendar".  So the new "Gregorian" calendar was invented in 16th century. Pope Gregory XIII had decreed the new Gregorian calendar on 24 February 1582. It took into account the more precisely calculated length of the solar calendar.  The Julian calendar widely adopted before did not account for that, so the calendar had been slowly drifting backwards (so that in a 20-30 thousand years we here in the Norh Hemisphere would have had winter beginning in June). In 1582, the drift was already accounted for 10 days, so when switching calendars the countries had to adjust their calendars like we do our clocks twice a year, only they had to turn them ahead the whole 10 days (October 4, 1582, the last day of the Julian calendar was followed by October 15, 1582, the first day of the Gregorian calendar). But not all countries followed suit, especially non-Catholic ones were not in a hurry to adopt the new Catholic invention. In fact,  between 1582, when the first countries adopted the Gregorian calendar, and 1923, when the last European country adopted it, it was often necessary to indicate the date of some event in both the Julian calendar and in the Gregorian calendar, for example, "10/21 February 1751/52", Most  Western countries switched from Julian to Gregorian calendar by the 18th century.  Russia, beigh Orthodox, rural, and old fashioned in many ways, switched to the Gregorian calendar next to last, in 1918.  However it t was not the last one to switch. Greece switched the latest of all in 1923.  But by 1918 the calendar has aldready drifted 3 more days, so Russians had to advance their calendars by 13 days.  Thus January 1st became January 14, and is still being celebrated as the "Old Style New Year".  While for many Western countries the time when both the new style and old style was used concurrently has passed a long time ago and has been well forgotten, in Russia it is still relatively recent history.  To be exact, however, celebrating "Old Style New Year" is the only reminder of the old style in the modern Russia.  Celebrating of this holiday does not come anywhere close to the January 1 New Year’s Day in scale and grandiosity and it has been declining each year.  And alas, they do not even get a desired day off! The holiday is not official.

Another unofficial, but a very nice holiday is Saint Valentine’s Day. It is one of Russia's latest acquisitions. Though the holiday has not been around for too long yet, affectionate Russians have grown to LOVE it. They celebrate it on February 14 exactly the way they do in other countries. Just like everywhere else sweethearts exchange flowers, valentines, gifts – you name it! Everything heart-shaped is more than welcomed on that day! A beautiful holiday except no day off for lovers.

Next on our holiday list is so-called FatherLand Defender’s Day. It takes place on February 23. It bears root from Soviet era. The holiday was formerly known as The Soviet Army Day, or even earlier it was The Red Army Day, as on February 23, 1918 the Red Army was officially created. Since all men in Russia are liable to military service, The Soviet Army Day applied to all men. Thy all got small token gifts from women on that day.  For obvious political reasons it has been recently renamed into "FatherLand Defender's Day" and just the same, celebrates all men regardless of age or occupation.

Now attention! We have gotten to Russian women’s most dearly cherished holiday. It is March 8, the official Women’s Day. That is the day when women get bouquets of flowers, boxes of chocolates, gifts, and other signs of affection from men around them. To show their deep appreciation some Russian men even do all the housework for their beloved women. Imagine how nice it is to have someone clean and cook for you for a change! Even if it is only once a year. Keep in mind that Russian women are normally destitute of Russian men’s attention in their everyday life. That will give you an understanding of how important this holiday is to women of Russia. For it is THEIR day. It is a unique chance for them to feel loved, admired, and cared for. Being treated like a woman is a rare treat for Russian women in Russia.  Forgetting to give a present or at least flowers on that day spells doom on a relationship. Both women and men get a day off on this glorious day. 

The first week of March is Shrovetide, or Maslenitsa. It is a truly beautiful ancient Russian holiday that among others used to be banned by communists. It was brought back to life not so long ago. The holiday’s main idea is celebrating the end of winter and beginning of spring. It is a pancake season in Russia. Why pancakes? Because they symbolize the Sun. And the holiday is all about the sun, feasts, festivals, fairs, and carnivals. Unfortunately this amazing tradition is not officially recognized by the authorities. That means there are no days off for Maslenitsa.

Somewhere in the end of March or beginning of April (depending on the year) Russians celebrate Orthodox Easter. In addition to the fact that the date of Easter varies from year to year in general, Russian Orthodox Easter is celebrated in most cases AFTER American Catholic one. It’s best to check the calender each year for exact Easter date. Why is that? Because the way of calculating it is incredibly complex. Especially when it comes to Russian Orthodox Easter. It goes back to Julian vs. Gregorian calendar, different interpretation of certain religious dates by Catholic and Orthodox Churches and other stuff certainly beyond the scope of this article.  Just refer to the table below to see the date of Easter for the next  5 years. The Easter celebration traditions again differ greatly across the country.  Certainly there is a lot of traditional celebration going on in churches, as Easter both in the West or East is considered the main religious holiday.  People celebrate depending on how religious or secular they are. Some pay tribute to their Orthodox upbringing and the holiday is full of religious meaning. For others it is simply a chance to brighten up their daily routine by coloring eggs, cooking delicious Easter dishes, and getting together. Sadly enough, no days off for Easter.

Dates of Easter Sunday 2007-2012:






2007 April 8
2008 March 23 April 27
2009 April 12 April 19
2010 April 4
2011 April 24
2012 April 8 Arpil 15


April 1 is so-called Day of Laughter, a copy of American April Fool’s Day. Yes, they too have smart alecks in Russia. Everyone gets to play funny and not-very-funny jokes on others. People can make fools of each other all they want. Impunity guaranteed. No day off for “clowns”, though.

May 1, that used to go by the name of International Workers’ Solidarity Day, is now known as Labor Day. It used to be highly festive during the communist rule, and still has not completely lost its luster. Out of habit Russians still have parades and public meetings on this day. Communists rejoice. For them May 1 is a chance to advertise themselves and play on people’s nostalgic feelings for the good old Soviet era. But most of the nation just enjoy a grand day off and an opportunity to go out for a picnic or camping for a long weekend.  Here would be a good place to mention another Russian tradition.  Since most people live in cities in small apartments, it it customary for many Russian families to own tiny lots of land in the country. They use them to grow greens and vegetables, some erect modest summer houses.  Because of the tiny size of those lots (usually less than 1/10 acre) and inexpensive, impermanent structures usually without bathroom facilities, plumbing, or water supply, Russians often refer to them, with irony, by catchy names such as "dacha" or "estate lot". As beginning of May is planting season in most of Russia, people usually use this long weekend to go to their dachas and plant this year's crop.

May 9 is sacred for Russians. It is Victory day. Russians are celebrating the victory in World War II.  Russia lost more than 20 million people in the war against fascism, so normally not very happy with their country Russians brim with patriotism on May 9. There are parades, fireworks, concerts and official celebrations all across Russia in honor of veterans and those millions of people that gave their lives for the victory. It makes sense why Russians also get that day off.

In addition to the merry holidays already mentioned Russians have purely official ones. The latter fall under the category of nice-to-have-an-extra-day-off holidays. Otherwise they have absolutely no value to the public. They include Russian Independence Day , June 12,  the Day of October Revolution now disguised as the Day of National Agreement and Reconciliation (November 7), and the Constitution Day (December 12). Russians get those days off without most of them really acknowledging the supposed significance of the holidays.

In conclusion, note that it is common for Russian government to switch weekend days around an oficial holiday so that people get 3 days off in a row.  For example if May 1 falls on Tuesday, they will declare the Saturday immediately before May 1 a working day, and the following Monday - a day off.  So people would have Sunday, Monday and Tuesday off.  The government announces the schedule for the upcoming holiday a few weeks in advance.  If you happen to visit Russia during the holidays, especially New Year's, keep in mind that all government offices may be closed earlier before and opened later after official days off.  If you need to renew your visa or do any other official business, prepare in advance.  On the other hand, during New Year holiday season you will see more friendly and smiling faces, you will see the softer and more beautifull side of Russian culture.


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