On celebrating Christmas in Russia
M o s c o w --
1. What is the significance of Christmas in Russian society?
Russians are only now re-learning Christmas: There was no official Christmas holiday in Russia between 1925 and 1992. Some traditional Christmas customs were unofficially shifted to New Years in order to increase their chances of survival, and only now are they being slowly transferred backwards (or forwards!) to Christmas. Its reintroduction is also greatly hampered by the fact that Christmas, the New Year and usually also Easter need to be celebrated twice. Lenin adopted the Western, Gregorian calendar (introduced in 1582) in 1918, but the Orthodox church continues to celebrate by the Julian one, which presently has December 25 falling on what the Western calendar regards as January 7. Presently, the Julian calendar (introduced in 45 B.C.) is 13 days behind the Gregorian one.
As a consequence of the Soviet era, New Years – the Gregorian, world-wide one – remains the biggest celebration of the year. December 25 is not an official holiday in Russia and most Russian celebration occurs between January 1 and 14. It is said that the Russia economy grinds to a halt between the days of the New Years and the “Old New Years” celebrations (January 1 to 14).
2. In what distinctive ways do Baptist churches in Russia celebrate Christmas?
The churches of Western origin which remain primarily the homes of ethnic minorities, the Catholics, Lutherans and Mennonites for ex., celebrate almost exclusively on the 25th. Others, like the Baptists, who stress their Russianness, celebrate twice. How Baptists manage the calendar spaghetti is dependent upon the creativity of the local Baptist leadership. A friend reports that in his Baptist church, the last hours before midnight on both December 24 and December 31 are spent in church, on one’s knees in prayer.
In his Baptist congregation, the family celebration occurs on the evening of the 24th, and the year’s most special church service occurs on the 25h. Baptists often use January 7 as an opportunity to evangelize, attempting to invite persons off the street to attend a church event that day. Caroling is done on the street on the evening of Dec. 24 or January 6. This occurred even during the late Soviet period, but the caroling was often done on-the-move without remaining at one location.
3. What is your favorite thing about Christmas in Russia?
Christmas gifts remain modest in Russia; there is no month-long shopping spree to speak of. In contrast to Germany, Advent, the last four Sundays prior to Christmas, is also rarely commemorated. But there are gifts for Baptist children on the evening of the 24th, and this indeed is the most special time of the year for the vast majority of Baptist children and their parents.
The evening of January 6 is a terrific time for Baptists to visit an Orthodox church. It’s their version of an all-night hymn sing: The candles glow and the drawn-out, almost sad and highly-melodious music of the Orthodox tradition reverberates until late in the morning hours. Indeed, the same occurs at Orthodox Easter.
Department for External Church Relations, RUECB
Moscow, 10 December 2009
A release of the Department for External Church Relations of the Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists. It is informational in character and does not express a sole, official position of RUECB-leadership. Release #09-39, 506 words, 3.066 keystrokes and spaces.
Note from September 2020: There was a protest after this article back in 2009. Moscow colleagues assured me that Russian Baptists do not attend Orthodox services during Orthodox Christmas.