More Russian Holidays: The Epiphany

The Epiphany, which Russian Orthodox Church celebrates on the 19th of January, marks the baptism of Jesus Christ in the Jordan River. Interestingly, in the West, the Epiphany mostly commemorates the visit of the Magi to the baby Jesus.

The Epiphany is widely celebrated in Russia. On this day, the Church conducts the Water Blessing rites (also known as the Great Blessing of the Waters). The water is blessed in vats and huge tanks at church yards. Also, the priests go out to the lakes and rivers to bless the waters there for people to plunge in the Holy waters.
There are conflicting views on the ritual of dipping in the water on Epiphany when you start reading about it. In people’s minds, it seems, the ritual of swimming in Holy Water on that day is associated with baptism of Jesus. In addition, people believe that on Epiphany all water is blessed and can wash away one’s sins. However, this Holiday in Russia seems to be over-imposed with paganism, as washing of sins ritual was intended primarily for those who participated in the pagan holiday of sviatki (associated with fortune-telling), held during the preceding twelve days of the yuletide period. (The Church is critical of such pagan yuletide traditions.)

Nevertheless, today, as in old Russia, a hole is cut in ice, usually in the form of a cross. A priest, followed by a solemn procession, blesses the water and believers take three dips in the Holy and freezing water. These rituals are centrally organized – a list of swimming sites is published, cabins for changing clothes are provided, police and doctors are on site.

The tradition was popular prior to the Soviet times and recently came back. One should approach it with proper attitude, with thoughts and prayers about life, friends and the loved ones and try and use it as an opportunity to wash off everything you might have done wrong over the year. But I suppose some people just jump in the cold water for the sake of sport, although I hope they take a pause to think about the purpose of it.

The majority of believers, however, go to churches on the eve and the actual day of the Epiphany to participate in church service and to get blessed water. The water is then kept for the whole year and is given to those who are ill and used to bless the home.

Epiphany is a great holiday and swimming in freezing water – although I wouldn’t call it really swimming but rather quick dipping – should not be considered as a mere oddity. Interestingly, it has a positive, very optimistic tone to it. Probably, because it is connected with new beginnings. Probably, because it is good to see a positively charged unity of people. Probably, because you see a cultural continuum.

This year the Epiphany was preceded by two days of snowfall. It was beautiful but gloomy, as always when snow falls in great quantities. Then, the snow stopped and in the early afternoon of the Epiphany the sun came out. We went to the church, which has been restored recently, to get some water.

Russian Church

People are filling bottles with Holy Water
Holy Water

Dipping in the Holy Water in the park
photo (10)
Dipping in the Holy Water during Russian Orthodox Epiphany

Merry Christmas!

In Russia Christmas is celebrated on the 7th of January. The reason for this is the difference between the Julian and Gregorian calendars. While most of Western European countries implemented the change to the Gregorian calendar in the 16th century, Russia continued to follow the Julian calendar until 1918. Before then, Christmas was celebrated in December, followed by the New Year. In 1918 the new Soviet government, in an attempt of secularization of the society, implemented the change of calendars, stating that January 31st of that year was to be followed by February 14th. Russian Orthodox Church, however, after a very brief period of acceptance of the Gregorian calendar, rejected it and, like a few other Christian Orthodox Churches, continues to follow the Julian calendar.

Some trifle change in the calendar should mean nothing for a true believer, and I’m sure, it does not for many Russian Orthodox people. Christmas was not a state holiday during the Soviet times. It returned as an official holiday in 1991. Although Christmas’ significance is overshadowed by the preceding festivities of the secular New Year the ideals of people have changed, and today many celebrate Christmas.

In Tula many people go to church on Christmas Eve. Not as many as at Easter, but many attend Christmas service, which starts at 11 pm. Usually, the service ends past two in the morning. Many go to church with their young children. When people return home, those who observed Lent celebrate the Holiday by drinking a glass of wine with a light snack. Some don’t attend the church, but watch live broadcasting of Christmas service from Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow.

Nobody, I believe, writes better about Russian Christmas or, in fact, other religious holidays in Russia, as Ivan Sergeevich Shmelev. He immigrated from Russia soon after the revolution. His recollections of pre-revolutionary life in Moscow are unbelievably poetic, probably in part because his stories are those of his childhood.

Today, walking with my son, I overheard two young men arguing. The younger one was asking the other to help some Alex, who did not, as I gathered, have any friends or relatives.
“But if he had anybody, he would’ve gone to them”, the younger man was saying. “You have to help him!”
“Are you saying,” the older man responded, “that we should let Alex to stay with us? Just because he doesn’t have anyone to go to?”

The weather was marvelous, the night was quiet and a light snow was falling. I came home and reread Shmelev’s recollection of the Christmas service:

Thy Nativity, O Christ our God, has shone to the world the light of wisdom…
And it seems for some reason, that that very old sacred tune … always existed. And will exist, always.”

Moscow Circus

The other concert was at the Moscow Circus, one of the oldest in Russia. A truly great place:
The performance was brilliant, in the traditions of Russian circus school, not as glamorous as Cirque du Soleil, but masterful and breathtaking.

One little thing caught my attention. In this place, dedicated to fostering children’s love to animals, there was a toy stand with a great collection of toy guns for sale. Comparing attitude to guns in Russia and the US, I see a paradox of sorts. Real firearms are prohibited in Russia, but real-looking toy guns are sold everywhere. It’s the opposite in the US and none of this makes me happy.

toy guns

Concert at the Kremlin

We took our son to Moscow to two “must-go” Holiday children concerts. One was at the Kremlin and the second at the Moscow Circus. We truly enjoyed both. Everything was very well organized and we were glad we went. The concert at the Kremlin was held at the Kremlin Palace of Congresses — the place, where the Communist Party of the Soviet Union held its meetings. The Palace is an amazing example of Soviet architecture, characterized by huge scale and austere grandeur. Read more at:

The Palace accommodates 6,000 people. There was a long line to get in, but it moved very-very fast.
kremlin line

There was a very good pre-show performance at the front hall, but our attention was captured by the glowing swords, which were sold in multiple locations throughout.
Kremlin toys

After the performance, each child gets a present — a large tin filled with chocolate candies. When it was over, we went outside, light snow was falling and the old Kremlin looked like a magic kingdom.
Magic Kremlin

And the festivities continue …

As I’ve mentioned, the official state New Year holidays start on December 31st and last to January 8th. Russian Christmas comes after the New Year on January 7th (stay tuned for explanation). All federal agencies are closed, most private business don’t operate. However, municipal transportation works, banks operate on a shortened schedule, and all the stores are open. The schools are closed.

All theaters and museums put up special holiday performances for children with Ded Moroz and the Snowmaiden (see earlier posts on who they are). The fate of Snowmaiden’s parents occupies the minds of the children, once they turn 5-6. To parents this question is no less challenging than the question of where the children come from. One needs to be very creative to explain to a five year old why the Snowmaiden’s parents never show up. There’s no official version, so every parent gives her own explanation that the Snowfather and the Snowmother are probably tied up at their office at the North Pole.

During the performance at the State Art Museum in Tula, Russia.
Ded Moroz -- Russian Santa

The visitors have to wear disposable plastic booties to the performance at this museum. I’m glad I didn’t put on my high heels. Jokes aside, it was a good idea because the streets are covered with snow, which is sprayed with sand, which gets carried inside on your shoes in great quantities.
Museum footwear

Food court

Russian barbecue — shashlyk.

Russian Winter Food

This is a picture from Moscow. The WCs are standing in the middle of a square, but are “tastefully” decorated with Russian folk patterns. It costs 20 rubles ($0.75) to use WC. You have to buy a ticket from a lady in the cabin on the left and then proceed to a vacant one. What a job…

Moscow Toilets

Russian Santa

A Russian version of Santa is Ded Moroz — Grandfather Frost. He has a granddaughter — Snegurochka (Snowmaiden). What happened to her parents is a mystery to all Russians. The parents are never mentioned. Here they are joined by a very tired polar bear.

Russian Santa

Obviously, they made enough to buy a snack.

Russian Santa Snack

New Year Pictures

A Russian family is taking picture with Ded Moroz (Grandfather Frost), his Granddaughter Snowmaiden, The Snake (the Chinese symbol of this year) with a Christmas Tree and Russian Orthodox Church in the background.

Russian New Year

Russian New Year

Russians love the New Year for several reasons. First of all, it signifies the new beginning. “To New Year, to New Happiness” is one of the popular sayings and toasts that people wish to each other. Secondly, Christmas as well as other religious holidays, was banned during the Soviet times. Other Soviet holidays such as the 7th of November, the October Revolution Day and 1st of May, International Labor Day, were really too impersonal. So the New Year, like birthdays, had a warmer nature. For many Soviets, like my grandparents, I believe, it rivaled in importance even their own birthdays. The reason for this lies in the fact, I think, that the New Year brought a feeling of togetherness, so important for a Soviet person, and not an exclusivity of one’s own birthday. Today, this togetherness with others celebrating is not as evident but it still exists. You don’t see anymore people on the street singing in unison accompanied by an accordion or a passerby offering (and accepting) shots of vodka to (and from) perfect strangers in the street. (Although, I won’t be surprised to learn that this habit still exists in smaller towns.) Now togetherness remains in the fact that people think same thoughts about the holiday, as well as they cook similar dishes. The New Year has a taste of nostalgia, nostalgia for an illusion of togetherness, since of course it is more difficult to feel united with others siting in a personal car or separated from the rest of the world by an ear-phones.

Mine is a view from Tula, a rather big city near Moscow. But despite many differences between the capital and provinces, the New Year is celebrated similarly. For an average person the preparation for the most important night of the year takes at least a month and it includes such universal activities as buying gifts and tickets to various holidays attractions, making beauty appointments, thinking about korporativy (office parties), making plans for vacations and other such pleasant distractions. In my Soviet childhood at least six weeks before the New Year were dedicated to the quest of searching for the special occasion food such as good sausage, red caviar, wine, and citruses for the big Holiday. Candies were saved and tangerines or oranges were brought from Moscow and put aside. Heavy green bottles of Soviet Champaign were placed under the bed in order to lose their plastic corks only at midnight on the 31st. Since then this pastime is no longer available for a very simple reason of the over-abundance of any kind of food or drink in any Russian store. But some of my friends mourn this tradition saying that the Holiday used to bring to them more satisfaction.

For some reason unknown to me contemporary provincial Russians love fireworks. I see in this our Byzantine heritage and just the universal human love for things bright and sparkling. Probably, people think that loud sounds and luminous explosions in the sky can express jubilation better than words. For example, firecrackers are a culmination of almost any wedding now. However, for Russians, I think, the danger of fireworks is also appealing. In any case, the first night of a new year is punctuated by a cannonade of firecrackers launched by citizens celebrating in the street. The sound is continuous and lasts at least until three or four in the morning.

The people, many of them, celebrate throughout the night. Either at home, restaurants, clubs or outside the way you celebrate depends on your imagination. Many people ring in the New Year at home and then start the happy rounds of going to relatives and friends. Many still like to go to the main Christmas tree in town, where there are many different attractions. The celebration usually dies off by seven in the morning. After eight and until ten or eleven in the morning the city is almost absolutely quiet. No lights in windows, no cars on the roads. Just trolley buses, empty, except for some men looking exhausted or couples returning home and some unfortunates going to work.

The Tree for many days before the New Year and after that becomes the meeting place for the people.