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Useful Notes / Russian Holidays

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Russia has seven official holidays.

New Year

Unlike in most European countries, Christmas is not the main winter holiday in Russia. This honour goes to the New Year, the single most celebrated Russian holiday. This is a legacy of the early Soviet times, when Christmas and its associated attributes were discarded as "religious prejudice", but the traditions were later "reassigned" to the nearest secular holiday.

New Year in Russia has an equivalent of Christmas trees. A New Year tree is always called a fir tree (yolka) even when another conifer trees is used (like a pine). Kids believe that Ded Moroz (the Russian Santa; literally "Grandfather Frost" or "Old Man Frost") puts presents under the New Year tree on the Januray 1 night, when they are asleep.

Ded Moroz is usually accompanied by his granddaughter, Snegurochka (Snow Maiden). He carries a staff and a bag of presents. His garments are blue, sometimes red or in some rare cases golden. He travels in a sleigh, carried by a trio of white horses. Some parents hire Ded Moroz impersonators to deliver gifts to their children personally, in exchange for a song or a small poem recited by heart, usually New Year themed. Every children's New Year festival, usually carried out in schools and kindergartens in prior two weeks, also has a Ded Moroz and Snegurochka.

On the actual New Year night, just before 0:00, it is customary for families to gather in front of their TV sets and listen to the president's public speech congratulating citizens with New Year, and then to the national anthem. These who are spearated by the midnight chime of the clock on Spasskaya tower. It's considered that the new year starts with twelfth bell. So far, there were two seriously abnormal speeches — first on December 31, 1991, read by the famous standup comedian Mikhail Zadornov: in the chaos of Soviet Union dissolution few days before no one up there thought about the traditional speech, and Zadornov just happened to be the most universally recognized figure that's been in studio at the time, and the second was on December 31, 1999, when Yeltsin repeated his surprise "Ya ustal, ya uhozhu" (I'm tired, I leave) resignation announcement from earlier that day, followed immediately by a more typical New Year speech by Putin, then acting president.

New Year is a popular subject of Russian jokes, which typically make fun of the perceived tradition to drink so much vodka on December 31 that it's impossible to get up the next day — and when someone does, Hilarity Ensues.

  • There are also jokes about Ded Moroz and Snegurochka. People hint that they aren't relatives at all...

A funny detail is, that New Year is not one day: it starts at December 31 and continues about week officially and at least until Old New Year unofficially. Students and party animals often run alco-marathons this days, and these long holydays are so exhausting, that rest is really needed before going back to work. Michail Zadornov, mentioned earlier, said once, that if some American calls a Russian company near New Year, he may hear a recommendation to call again in April.

Also, every kids' theatre hold some themed performance (also called yolkas), giving out presents (mostly consisting of candy), which many kids attend wearing a costume. In Soviet times the most popular costumes were ones of a snowflake for girls and of a bunny hare for boys, those are also subjects for many jokes. Such performances oftenly happen three times a day for two or three weeks, so the actors get overly tired, but get paid pretty well.

Orthodox Christmas

Celebrated on January 7, which corresponds to December 25 in the Julian calendar. (Russia migrated to Gregorian in 1918, one of the latest countries to do so, but the Russian Orthodox Church still uses the so-called "old style", probably because of the new calendar's Catholic roots, or just not to change its' internal messes calendar which is formed a few years in advance). It's a natural continuation of the winter holiday season, which continues until the "Old New Year" celebrated on January 14, corresponding to New Year's Day in the Julian calendar. Unlike New Year and Christmas, Old New Year is not an official holiday. The wildest party animals and the biggest alcoholics will start "celebrating" on the Gregorian Christmas and continue all the way until the Julian New Year.

Defender of the Fatherland Day

February 23. Once known as the Red Army Day; a little known fact is that it corresponds to the first mass draft into the Red Army in Moscow and Petrograd (St. Petersburg), and should thus be, for all intents and purposes, a mourning day. It serves as a quasi-official "men's day", due to the lack of a universally recognized counterpart to International Women's Day. An even lesser known fact is that in Julian calendar, it corresponds to March 8 (but this time it has nothing to do with the holiday's origin) and was the day when the riots leading to the February Revolution of 1917 started.

International Women's Day

March 8. Basically, the reverse of the above: men give gifts to women instead of the other way round. Generally not the same ones. Historically has ties to the international labor movement, hence the name, but it has long lost any political meaning.

May 1

Official name intentionally omitted; any descriptive name is much more obscure than just the day and month. Used to be called "International Workers' Day" in the Soviet Union, now it's "Spring and Labor Day". Whatever. Less widely celebrated now, although public gatherings (called "mayovkas") and Communist demonstrations are still common.

Victory Day

May 9, the day Nazi Germany surrendered to the Soviet Union in 1945. (Taking into account the timezone issue.) It is celebrated with gifts to WWII veterans, a military parade on the Red Square (a tradition that began with the Victory Parade of 1945, which actually took place on June 24), and war documentaries displacing pretty much everything else on TV.

  • In Russian Orthodox Church 9th of May is The Day of Mourning the Fallen. The Victory Day is actually a bittersweet holiday.
  • The traditional parade is not really certain event. It wasn't held in Soviet Union until The '70s, and The New Russia seriously scaled it down, with the vehicle part not being held until The Oughts, and it generally tends to vary in scale, with the most impressive ones held on jubilees.

Russia Day

June 12. A relatively new and obscure holiday, corresponding to the day (in 1990) when the RSFSR announced that its laws take precedence over Union ones, which was taken as a declaration of sovereignty. (Russia still remained part of the Soviet Union until its dissolution a year and a half later.) Known as Independence Day until 1994, ignoring the fact that Russia has always been independent throughout its history (except for the Mongol yoke).

  • The Independence Day referred specifically to independence of Russia from the Soviet Union, or at least the autonomy of the former within the latter. While in the Soviet times the terms "Russia" and "Soviet Union" were never used interchangeably like they were used in the West, the RSFSR had less autonomy than the other republics, since it did not have its own branch of the Communist Party and was controlled directly by the all-Union Party. So, in a sense, Russia was not independent of the USSR, just like England is not independent of the UK.
  • Since many people in Russia feel the Soviet collapse is a tragic event, they intentionally refuse to celebrate this day as a holiday, instead just using it as a day off work. This sentiment gave birth to a bitter-mocking misnomer "The Independence From Common Sense Day".

Unity Day

November 4, an even more obscure holiday if that's at all possible. It is intended as a drop-in replacement for November 7, the October Revolution Day of 1917 (yes, Julian calendar yet again). Despite its Communist connotations, the October Revolution Day was celebrated until 2005 (in post-Soviet Russia, it was known as the Day of Accord and Conciliation). November 4 refers to a lesser-known event in 1612, when a militia led by Minin and Pozharsky liberated Moscow from Polish invaders, ending the Time of Troubles and restoring Russia's sovereignty. It's a popular day for various far-right rallies.

Unofficial holidays

There are many, but these probably deserve at least a brief mention. All unofficial holidays are working days, except for Easter, which is always a Sunday.

  • Old New Year (January 13) i.e. New Year in Julian calendar.
  • Tatjana's day (January 25) - a day of students.
    • It corresponds to the Feast of St. Tatiana, the Orthodox saint on whose day the Moscow University was founded. Thus she became seen as the patron saint first of the University, and then the students in general.
    • Also, by this day the exams session of the fall semester generally ends and the winter vacations start in most universities, so students celebrate it as their day of liberation from the oppression of teachers.
  • St. Valentine's Day (February 14): Its celebration is still relatively new in Russia, so whatever traditions exist are borrowed from the West, such as heart-shaped postcards. It has a certain significance due to immediately preceding both "gender holidays", February 23 and March 8.
  • Fool's Day (April, 1) . The day of jokes, sometimes pretty scary. Unlike British tradition, it does not end at noon, but takes all day.
  • Easter, or Paskha (first Sunday after... ah, forget it, refer to Wikipedia. But it's usually sometime during spring): Celebrated by Christians and non-Christians alike despite its origins. Associated with painted eggs, Easter cakes or quark puddings (paskha), and the stock greeting and response: "Christ is risen!" — "Truly risen!", with nigh-mandatory triple kisses in the cheeks. The latter is subject to numerous jokes, most of which originated from orthodox Christians, especially clerics. It's a tradition. // An interesting note about this holiday: the two main Christian holidays are Christmas (birth of Christ) and Easter (resurrection of Christ).
  • The week before Lent (also the seventh before Easter - a Western translation would be the old Western feast of Septuagesioma) is "Maslenitsa" (from Maslanaja nedelja, "butter week"), (the last day of) which is an occasion to eat sweet pancakes and all kinds of other food. Was often a non-religious family "holiday" (read: excuse to eat pancakes) in Soviet times. Has since become somewhat more public; in particular, this troper has fond memories of it being "practiced" (again, as an excuse to eat gratuitous amounts of sweet pancakes) at his school when he was in first grade, though that seems to be far from universal. The holiday was a weird mix of pagan greeting/call to spring and last feast before Lent.
    • In other words, it's exactly like the traditions of Shrove Tuesday, spread out over a week. In that sense, it's distantly related to Mardi Gras (which developed out of the Latin Catholic tradition of Carnival) but it's closer to the traditions of Slavic Catholics (Poles in particular are noted for consuming doughnuts and pancakes).
  • Ivan Kupala (July 7): Named after a weird amalgamation of John the Baptist and a pagan Slavic Kupala deity, although the origin is forgotten nowadays anyway, as well as the "meaning" of the single weird tradition that defines this holiday. It involves the youth running around shirtless and pouring water at each other.
    • Actually, the holiday is more or less forgotten too.
    • It's still celebrated by the folklore buffs and neo-pagans.
  • Cities also celebrates a city day, a kind of city birthday, though almost never connected to the actual founding date of the city.
  • Many job's days. Only a few are really wide known, like teacher's day (October 5).
    • VDV Day (August 2) is the job's day of the elite Russian Airborne soldiers (desantniks). It's well known, because that day a lot of rowdy, drunken desantniks (usually former, as serving ones aren't usually given leave on that day) flood the streets and celebrate in a particularly ungentlemanly way, bathing in fountains and picking fights with the police and innocent citizens.

Russian holidays in fiction

  • Some Soviet fairy tales depicts New Year as a supernatural day, when the incarnation of the coming year replaces one of the ending year.
  • The classic Soviet comedy The Irony of Fate, its 2007 sequel and the Magic Realism film Day Watch all take place on New Year's Eve.
    • Watching The Irony of Fate on New Year's Eve, often on repeat, has become something of a tradition among many Russian households.
  • The 2007 film 1612 aims to explain the historical background of Unity Day, although it is only loosely based on history.
  • Nikolai Gogol's The Eve of Ivan Kupala takes place exactly when the title says. Having nothing to do with the modern tradition of pouring water on everyone, it instead refers to the holiday's pagan roots, telling the story of a man trying to find a fern flower, which, according to legend, only blossoms on that day and may lead to a buried treasure.
    • His another story, The Night Before Christmas, takes place on Christmas Eve and is also based on a folk tale that demons are given a free reign on a night before Christmas. It tells a story of a village blacksmith and icon painter trying to woo the Mayor's daughter with the help of a demon he tamed with a sign of the cross.