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Russian Holidays

Holidays are an important part of life in Russia.

There are traits that distinguish Russia from any other country. The Russian culture is centuries old, and unique. Holidays have always been very important for the Russians. Each of the numerous stages of Russia’s development has left a mark in its culture. Holidays are among such marks. There is no shortage of holidays in Russia: official and unofficial, professional and private, old and new. Strange as it may seem, all of these manage to coexist sucessfully. For example, the Russians still celebrate some of the old religious holidays along with some of the Soviet ones, which have been given new names. Purely official holidays mean nothing to people, but there are holidays which are sacred to every Russian person. The better you know Russian traditions, the easier it is for you to understand the people. Most of what is written below applies to other CIS countries as well (e.g. Lithuania), though there may be differences. 

New Year’s Day is the most anticipated holiday. New Year in Russia is pretty much like Christmas in your country. It is one of the most cheerful holidays and probably the most popular one. Why is New Year more important than Christmas? The thing is that during the Soviet rule all religious holidays, including Russian Orthodox Christmas, were banned. The New Year quickly replaced it both on the calendar and in people’s hearts. Tne New Year celebration also features a beautifully decorated tree (which is called a New Year tree), gifts, feasts, etc. It is traditional to make a wish at the first stroke of midnight. New Year is associated with the promise of a happier and better new life. Each coming year is expected to be better than the last. First, around ten to midnight, Russians drink to the passing year. The Strikes of the Spasskaya Tower Clock (Kremlin wall) mark the end of the year, much like the ball-dropping countdown in New York. During the first half hour people traditionally drink champagne, switching to vodka or wine afterwards. While Christmas in America is considered a family holiday, New Year is a party thing in Russia. This is the time when friends and relatives gather at the dinner table which is full of delicious things. People usually stay awake till 5 or 6 a.m, which they can afford because the 1st and the 2nd of January are days off. The 31st ofDecember is a working day, but one on which hardly anyone really works. Parties are thrown in offices, as well. The Russian president always addresses the nation at 11.55 p.m. The New Year night is merry: people are cheerful, they call on their friends (often unexpectedly), go to look at huge lit-up New Year trees put up all around town and congratulate each other even if they are total strangers.

Russian Orthodox Christmas, January 7, is also significant. After the fall of the Soviet regime this holiday was reinstated as an official holiday. Christmas in Russia is of a distinctively religious cast. People go to church. Church services take place at night. The 7th of January is a sacred holiday and a day off. Since it was banned for a long time, it has not gained such popularity as in America or Europe. However Russia has always been a religious country, and the holiday holds great importance for many people.

January 14 is a most unusual holiday...On this day, the Russians celebrate another New Year! Russian people are sometimes really unpredictable! This holiday has to do with the fact that Russia is mostly Orthodox, not Catholic, and with the length of the solar year. The followinf explanation is simplified. If you want to get academic, please go to Wikipedia and type "Gregorian calendar". The new "Gregorian" calendar was introuduced by Pope Gregory XIII on 24 February 1582. The old Julian calendar calculated the length of the solar year less precisely, so it needed be replaced. The Julian calendar had been slowly falling behind (so that in 20-30 thousand years people living in the Northern Hemisphere would have had winter beginning in June). In 1582 the lag already counted 10 days. The countries which decided to switch to the new Gregorian calendar had to shift their calendars 10 days ahead. Thus, the end of the old Julian calendar was October 4, 1582, and the first day of the Gregorian calendar was October 15, 1582. However, the decision to switch to the new system was not unanimous. Some countries made it much later. Russia has always clung to its traditions, which is why it only did in 1918 what most countriees had done back in the 18th century. Russia was not the last one, though. The last one was Greece in 1923. But by 1918 the calendar was already behind by 3 more days, so the Russians had to shift their calendars by 13 days.  So, January 1st became January 14. This day is still celebrated as the "Old New Year". This strange holiday is fairly recent, and its popularity fades from year to year. It has never been as important as the actual New Year's Day on the 1st of January. Moreover, since the holiday is unofficial, it is not a day off.

The Russians also have Saint Valentine’s Day! It came to Russia very recently. Nevertheless, it has quickly gained popularity. This beautiful romantic holiday is celebrated in Russia in exactly the same way as everywhere else in the world. Though it is not an official day off, Russian women love it. Those who are in love exchange valentines and gifts, usually shaped like a heart.  

The next Russian holiday is Country Defender’s Day. This is an official holiday that takes place on the 23rd of February. It used to be known as The Red Army Day, because it was on February 23rd, 1918 that the Red Army was created. Later on it was renamed The Soviet Army Day. It concerned not only the military, but all Russian men, since military service in Russia is compulsory. In the newly created Russian Federation the Soviet name of the holiday was changed into "Country Defender's Day". On this day all Russian men, regardless of age or occupation, get small presents from women – their wives, mothers, friends, etc.

Important: the most beautiful holiday of the year is devoted to women - it is March 8, the official Women’s Day. This is also an official holiday. Women all over Russia look forward to this day because it is their day! They get presents and gifts from men, whose attention they otherwise lack in everyday life. Quite a lot of husbands take up their wives’ chores on this day. Everyone congratulates women, and parties are thrown at work. At home this turns into a celebration where Russian women feel loved and admired. If a man forgets to give flowers or a present to his woman, it spells doom for the relationship. This glorious day is a day off for men and women alike. Thus, the beginning of spring in Russia is devoted to women.

The first week of March is Shrovetide, or Maslenitsa. This holiday was also banned during the Soviet time. It isn’t any longer, but it’s not an official holiday, either. The holiday itself is ancient and has pagan roots. During Maslenitsa people celebrate the end of winter and the beginning of spring. The holiday lasts for a whole week. It is a custom to eat pancakes during Maslenitsa. Pancakes symbolize the sun, and the holiday is all about the sun, feasts, festivals, fairs, and carnivals. It is also traditoional to make a huge straw figure and burn it at the end of the holiday week (also symbolizing the end of winter).

The greatest Russian Christian holiday is Easter, which takes place at the end of March or  the beginning of April. Calculating the date of Easter is rather complicated, and it is unnecessary to explain it here. However, below you will find a chart listing the dates of Easter for several years ahead. Moreover, the Russian Orthodox Easter is celebrated in most cases AFTER the Catholic one. Russian Easter goes back to the Julian calendar; besides, some religious dates are interpreted differently by the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. Easter is  a celebration of the awakening of new life in nature. There are some traditions connected with this holiday. The most prominent of them, and one that goes back to the pagan times, is dying eggs. The egg was a fertility symbol long before the Christian era, but in Christian times the egg took on a new meaning as a symbol of the tomb from which Christ rose. Easter has great religious significance for many Russian people. Non- and mildly religious people celebrate this holiday anyway, for it is a wonderful change for the routine, and an occasion for a family reunion. In spite of all that, Easter is a working day.

Dates of Easter Sunday 2007-2012:







April 8


March 23

April 27


April 12

April 19


April 4


April 24


April 8

Arpil 15

The 1st of April is April Fool's Day (the Day of Laughter). Silly, but (mostly) harmless tricks are played on people on this day, same as in America, and you can (usually) get away with that. Clowns, sadly, do not have a day off. This holiday is not really important, but it is a chance to smile and think about how beautiful and cheerful life is.  

May 1 is Labor Day. The name is rather recent. It used to be International Workers’ Solidarity Day in the Soviet times. Some Russians (especially senior citizens) still have marches and public meetings on the 1st of May. This holiday was very important in the USSR, but now it is just another day off when people can rest nad go to the country. Communists use this day for propaganda, reminding people how good life in the USSR used to be, but fewer and fewer Russians listen to them. Most Russian people live in small apartments and have tiny lots of land in the country where they grow vegetables and fruit trees. These lots of land are called "dacha" or "estate lots". A dacha usually has a small house without utilities, just a place to have rest after work on the land. It is a Russian tradition to make a barbecue on the 1st of May. These days are usually warm, and people go to their dachas to plant the year's crop and to have a barbecue. (Usually the pieces of meat go with onion and tomatoes).

One of the most important dates in Russia is Victory Day, celebrated on May 9. This is a sacred holiday for the whole country. It commemorates the victory of the Russian troops over the Nazi invaders. On this day the veterans meet in the parks and squares of the cities to exchange greetings and memories of the war. Wartime music can be heard evrywhere. At night fireworks are are fired. The Russians are at their most patriotic on May 9. Parades and celebrations are held in every Russian city or town. Naturally, it is a day off.

Some Russian holidays are purely official. These are the Independence Day, June 12,  the former Day of October Revolution, now renamed the Day of National Agreement and Reconciliation (November 7), and the Constitution Day (December 12). People look at them as just additional days off and do not care about the meaning of these holidays.

Keep it in mind that it is common for the Russian government to switch working days around an official holiday so that people could have several days off in a row. For instance, if a holiday falls on Tuesday, the last Saturday before the holiday will be delcared a working day, and the first 3 days of the week will be days off. Remember that if you are going to travel to Russia on holidays. Offices may be closed earlier and opened later than the holiday itself. The schedule becomes known several weeks ahead, so it is better to be ready beforehand. If you come during New Year holiday season, you will see more friendly and smiling faces, and the better side of Russian culture. Everything will be decorated, the streets and parks will look wonderful. You will see a cheerful Russia, and you will like this amazing country.