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Wednesday, January 1, 2014

History of Christmas and New Year celebrations in Russia

Christmas is gradually winning back its place in the hearts and minds of Russian people after the fall of the Soviet Union. But New Year is still considered THE biggest holiday of the year here. Before we speak about the evolution of Christmas and New Year traditions here, we need to make sure you are aware of the main characters of Russian folklore, because Russian children can’t even imagine the holidays without them.

Not Santa Claus, but Grandfather Frost!

Santa Claus doesn't come to Russian kids in winter. Grandfather Frost does (often translated into English as Father Frost, which is wrong). Though it seems to be a popular opinion that it’s the same figure with different names, the history shows that Santa Claus and Grandfather Frost are two totally different characters.
According to Wikipedia, Santa Claus was first mentioned in the poem called “A Visit from St. Nicholas” by Clement Clark Moore. The poem was published in 1823. So Santa Claus isn't exactly very old ;)
As for the Russian Grandfather Frost, he is so ancient that nobody even knows exactly when the legend about him first appeared.

There are two theories regarding the appearance of Grandfather Frost:

The legend of Grandfather Frost appeared back in those times when Russian people still worshiped the spirits of the dead because they thought those spirits protected them, influenced the weather and made sure that their animals gave birth to healthy babies. So there was a special ritual people performed every winter. They dressed in strange clothes and brought sacrifices/presents to the spirits. Though everybody looked really weird on that day, still there was one person who looked the scariest. Besides, he didn't speak. He wasn't allowed to say even a word. Everybody called him “Ded” which means “Grandfather” in Russian. He represented the angriest winter spirit who demanded sacrifices. If this theory is true, then, obviously, with time the character of Grandfather Frost became kinder and kinder in people’s minds, so today he doesn't demand any sacrifices, but brings presents to children.

According to the other theory, Grandfather Frost is actually an ancient spirit called Morozko, or Moroz (which means "frost"). He was an old man with a long beard and an awful temper. He also had a wife called Zima (Winter). Together, they were the hosts of winter.

Russian Grandfather Frost also differs from Santa Claus by his looks. According to the Russian fairy-tales, he wears a long fur-coat, felt boots, a warm hat and mittens. Plus he has a very long beard and carries a magical staff. You can learn more about Russian Santa in this blog post.

Besides, unlike Santa Claus, he never comes down the chimney to put gifts under the tree. Nobody knows how exactly he brings presents to children, but the gifts magically appear under the tree during the night. Even if everybody is wide awake. Oh, have I mentioned that now it’s a tradition to go to bed really late at New Year? Young people may even stay up all night and then sleep all day J . Older and wiser people stay up till about 3 or 4 AM and then go to sleep.

Snow Maiden (Snegurochka)

It’s a girl made of snow who comes to Russian kids together with Grandfather Frost. The existence of a feminine character in the legend is something that makes Russian Christmas and New Year traditions different from other countries. There are no other characters like Snegurochka in their mythology. True, there's Yuki Onna (snow woman) in the Japanese folklore, but she is mean and always brings snowstorms. Unlike her, Snegurochka is very kind and cheerful and never brings any problems or troubles.

Though now people often say that Snegurochka is Grandfather Frosts's granddaughter, she is not actually related to him, but the myth about Snegurochka is as ancient as the one about Grandfather Frost. When Russia was still a pagan country people used to make idols from snow in winter because they firmly believed that these figures could protect them from evil spirits. And according to some legends, young women made of snow could really come to life. 

Sounds just like Russian Fairytale The Snow Maiden (Snegurochka): she was made of snow by an elderly childless couple and then she came to life and lived in their house until spring came. And then she went for a walk with her friends one day and melted in the sun. Now she comes to Russian children together with Grandfather Frost and she is always very kind to everybody. 

When did they start celebrating New Year and Christmas in Russia?
Russian people started to celebrate Christmas back in the X's century, right after they accepted Christianity as the state religion. There was a special ritual of celebrating this special holiday, and the festivities lasted several days, with different traditional meals cooked and various rituals performed. Now only very religious people observe some of those ancient rituals, and I haven't met anybody who would observe all of them.

There were a lot of customs and traditions connected with Christmas, but putting up a Christmas tree and decorating it wasn't initially one of them. This tradition came to Russia from Germany. The first written evidence of decorating a Christmas tree dates back to the XVI century. The tree was set up in Strasbourg and was decorated with colored paper, fruit and sweets. In 1699 the Russian emperor Peter the Great issued a decree ordering people to decorate their houses with pine, fir and cedar tree branches.  At first people didn't want to follow the decree. The Slavs considered fir tree to be the tree of the dead, so it was very far from being the best choice for any holiday. Besides, in Siberia and in the North of Russia there were a lot of old believers who actually thought Peter the Great was an incarnation of the devil and a blasphemer. So for them, everything Peter said was a temptation that came from the worst enemy of people.

So you can see that it was pretty hard to start the new tradition in Russia. But eventually it became more popular. The trees appeared in the houses in the 1830's; and in 1852 the first ever Christmas trees appeared in the streets of the Russian capital. By the end of the XIX century Christmas trees became the main decoration in homes both in cities and villages. And, as the demand for the Christmas tree ornaments and other decorations grew, there even appeared the first plant which made "Bengali lights".

The first Russian Christmas glass tree ornaments were manufactured in the estate of Prince Menshikov in the suburb of Klin, not far from Moscow. Now there is a museum of Christmas and New Year tree ornaments there. Glass Christmas ornaments were very expensive, so not many people could afford them. That's why they also started making Christmas ornaments of cardboard, cotton and wire. Another factory producing Christmas decorations was located in Saint Petersburg. It used mainly German materials for the ornaments, so it's really hard to tell the old Russian decorations from the German ones now.

In 1916, during the war with Germany, the Holy Governing Sinod forbade to decorate Christmas trees because it was the tradition of the "enemies". And after the 1917 Bolshevik revolution the new government just chose to keep the prohibition since from that time religion was supposed to be banned from the life of Soviet people forever. Only in 1935 Stalin finally issued a decree that allowed Russians to celebrate New Year and decorate New Year tree (it was not called Christmas tree any more).

Since it was a totally different country with a totally different ideology, the ornaments changed too. Before the revolution they mainly represented things related to the Bible: Bethlehem stars, angels etc. After the return of New year celebrations in 1935 the factories started producing ornaments depicting pioneers, collective farm workers, Kremlin stars and other things.

In 1930 – 1960's the production of New Year souvenirs and ornaments thrived. They were made of different materials, including cotton wool, cardboard, papier-mache, wire, wood, porcelain, and glass. Cotton wool ornaments were made using special molds of which there was a great variety. The figurines were then covered with starch glue and mica. They stopped to make cotton wool ornaments in the 1950's, but I remember we had a few of them in the house. Unfortunately, none of them stayed undamaged until today, so I can't show you a picture of those ornaments.

The Moskabel factory producing New Year decorations didn't stop the work even during the World War II. It was a tough time for the Russians, so they really needed some joy. But the materials they used before the war turned to be too expensive then, so the factory had to find a way out. And they started making painted tin animal figurines. Now these ornaments are very rare and very expensive because every collector wants to have at least one ornament like that in their collection of Christmas and New Year decorations.

Can you imagine that all the time from the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 until 1947 New Year's day was a regular working day? It’s hard to believe but it's true. Since 1947 New Year became a public holiday, and it still stays a day off.

In 1950's and 1960's they started making New Year ornaments that had to be attached to the New Year tree with a clip. Those ornaments were really popular. I remember we had a small figurine of a pioneer with a clip like that. Approximately at the same time they started making different ornaments in the shape of various fruits and vegetables: corn, tomatoes, cucumbers, lemons etc. Corn was especially popular thanks to Khrushchev's passion and his corn cultivation campaign.

In 1966 they stopped hand panting glass blown New Year ornaments. The mass production era started. Luckily, recently handmade and hand painted ornaments started to win back their popularity. People love it when they have something unique in their house during Christmas and New Year. New Year ornaments in the shape of Russian symbols, like little copies of ancient towers and Kremlins of different cities are especially popular now.

The Russian Store features a great variety of hand blown glass Christmas and New Year ornaments, hand carved wooden Christmas tree ornaments, Russian dolls ornaments, nativity nesting dolls and wooden Santas

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