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December 6th marks the Feast Day of St. Nicholas of Myra; a Turkish bishop who became the patron saint of Moscow and Santa to the world. Due to the suppression of religion during the Soviet regime, St. Nicholas was replaced by Dyed Moroz or Grandfather Frost, the Russian Spirit of Winter who brought gifts on New Year's. He is accompanied by Snyegurochka, the Snowmaiden, who helps distribute the gifts.
Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia had adopted the custom of celebrating Christmas on December 25th. However, the Orthodox Church Christmas is on January 7th. This is, also, an official national holiday.
Another cherished Christmas tradition, prior to the Soviet era, was the endearing character known as Babouschka. According to folklore, Babouschka did not offer food and shelter to the Magi during their search for the Christ Child. To this day, she wanders the countryside in search of the Baby Jesus. Along the way, she visits homes where children live, leaving them gifts at Christmas time. Babouschka, a character similar to the Italian Befana, has returned as a continued favorite of the Russian Christmas traditions.
The Christmas tree (Yolka) is yet another tradition banned during the Soviet era.To keep the custom alive, people decorated New Year's trees, instead. Since ornaments were either very costly or unavailable, family trees were trimmed with homemade decorations and fruit. Yolka comes from the word which refers to a fir tree. The custom of decorating Christmas trees was introduced to Russia by Peter the Great, after he visited Europe during the 1700's.
An old Russian tradition, whose roots are in the Orthodox faith, is the Christmas Eve fast and meal. The fast, typically, lasts until after the evening worship service or until the first star appears. The dinner that follows is very much a celebration, although, meat is not permitted. Kutya, a type of porridge, is the primary dish. It is very symbolic with its ingredients being various grains for hope and honey and poppy seed for happiness and peace.
A house blessing is customary at this time. The priest sprinkles a bit of holy water in each room of the home, praying that the abode and all who live there have a safe and happy year. After the blessing, the kutya is shared from a common bowl to symbolize unity. After the Christmas Eve meal, a great deal of merriment commences. Music, singing, dancing, games and a visit from the mummers are a part of the fun.
S Rozhdestvom Khristovym !