St Petersburg in winter

The last Russian Christmas

Posted on: 01/12/2015 with tags: christmas, laurie graham, Russia, 20th Century

Christmas 1916.  In just a few weeks  –  bearing in mind that the Russian Orthodox church used (and still uses) the Julian calendar, with Christmas celebrated on January 7th  – the cataclysm of the February Revolution was going to change Russia forever.

The way Christmas was celebrated depended very much on who you were and where you lived. In 1916 St Petersburg was still the capital and its inhabitants had a high opinion of themselves and their (literally) westward-looking city. They looked down their sophisticated noses at Moscow and regarded Muscovites as irredeemably hick. It’s also worth remembering that if you scratch the surface of any country’s Christmas traditions you’ll soon hit a pre-Christian, pagan seam and this was particularly true of Russia.

So because of the Julian calendar New Year preceded Christmas in Russia and marked the start of fourteen days of celebration, known collectively as Svyatki, which lasted from New Year’s Day to January 14th, the Feast of Theophany. I suppose it’s what we in the west would once have called Yuletide and some now refer to, regrettably, as The Holiday Season.

New Year was when spruce trees, yolki, were brought into the house and decorated. Peter the Great introduced this German fashion to Russia long before the British Royal Family caught on to it. But in 1916 yolki were out of favour because Russia was at war with Germany and all things German were frowned upon. There will have been very few decorated trees at that last pre-Revolution Christmas.

The problem with adhering to the Julian calendar was that for the first six days of Svyatki devout Orthodox were still keeping the Nativity Fast: no meat, no wine, very little fish. The glitterati of St Petersburg may have winked at this and partied anyway   –  the status of caviar in the fasting diet was conveniently ambiguous  – but the general population took the fast very seriously. A feast, say the Orthodox, is much more a feast if you’ve fasted first.

Christmas Eve, Sochelnik, was a day of strict fasting. No food at all until the first star appeared in the night sky. Some families would then sit down to a full dinner but many would first break their fast with a dish called kutya and postpone the real feasting until after the All Night Vigil in church. Kutya is a kind of porridge, usually made with wheat and sweetened with honey, and its pagan roots run deep. A propitiatory dish of kutya would be left outside the house for Ded Maroz (Grandfather Frost) and his lovely assistant, Snegurochka, to ask them not to ruin next year’s crops. Another helping would be left on the table, for the souls of the departed.

With the Nativity Fast over the party season could really begin and the tradition of Kolyada was perhaps the most pagan of all Russia’s festivities. Kolyada is a tribute to the sun goddess, a kind of Slavic Saturnalia. People went from house to house, sometimes in costume, sometimes in animal masks as a nod towards the ‘beasts at the manger’ in the Christmas story, singing and dancing in exchange for food and drink or money. It was carol-singing or mumming, Russian-style.  Tolstoy loved kolyada. One Christmas he’s reported to have dressed as a bear-tamer and led the entertainment with the family cook, disguised in an old raccoon coat, as his dancing bear.

They say Peter the Great liked to go kolyadki singing too. Not Nicholas II though, and certainly not in 1916. The country was at war, the atheistic Bolsheviks were waiting in the wings and Christmas lights were about to go out across Russia. They wouldn’t be lit again until 1992.

Author: Laurie Graham

Laurie Graham is a former Daily Telegraph columnist and contributing editor of She magazine. The author of several acclaimed novels, most recently The Grand Duchess of Nowhere and The Night in Question (2015), Laurie lives in Dublin.

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