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Celebrating Russian Christmas

A Tradition Returns

With the revolution of 1917, Communist rule brought an end to open religious expression in Russia, and Christmas was largely replaced by the Festival of Winter. The Christmas tree, decorated with tangerines and dolls made of dried fruit, became the New Year’s tree. Grandfather Frost, a slender, blue-robed figure said to travel door-to-door in a troika (a sleigh drawn by three horses), brought gifts for all on New Year’s Eve.

Since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russians have been free to celebrate Christmas as they wish. New Year’s remains a favorite gift-giving holiday, but millions of Russians are returning to the rituals and traditions of the Eastern Orthodox Church, which observes Christmas on January 7. The meatless meal that Orthodox Christians eat after a day of fasting on Christmas Eve—known as the Holy Supper—is rich in symbols that honor the Christmas story. A white tablecloth represents Christ’s swaddling clothes; hay is strewn across the table as a reminder of the manger; a tall white candle symbolizes Christ as “the light of the world.”

Traditionally, the meal consists of 12 foods, in honor of the 12 apostles. These include pagach (a potato-cabbage bread), which is dipped in honey and garlic to represent the sweetness and the bitterness of life, and the most important dish of the meal, kutya, a porridge made of wheat berries (for hope) and honey and poppy seeds (for happiness and success).

Rochelle Green is a freelance writer and editor living in Connecticut.

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