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Most important Russian holidays

Holidays in Russia are an important part of culture which helps to understand the Russians much better.

Every country has its holidays, but Russia has always been different. Russia is a unique country where traditions from East and West successfully coexist. Russian history is rooted in the distant past, in the times of pagan belief. From a small tribe in the central part of Europe Russia has developed into the biggest country in the world with so many regions which have even their own customs and holidays. There are official and unofficial, professional and private, old and new holidays in Russia. Some holidays came from the past, others were revived or renamed. Not all holidays, however, are important for the Russian people. Some official holidays have no meaning for people at all while others have great emotional gravity. To know the customs and traditions of any country is the key to understanding its people, and here Russia is not an exception. Most of the information below applies to all other CIS countries, but there may be some changes - after all, these countries has been separate ones for already 15 years.

New Year’s Day - January, 1st. New Year is one of the most anticipated and one of the most cheerful holidays in Russia. Before Communists took power, Russian Orthodox Christmas was a very important Russian holiday, a sacred one. However, Communists banned all religious holidays as they banned religion in the country, so Christmas became less and less popular with years passing by. New Year replaced it in the hearts of people, however. The New Year is also celebrated with a Christmas tree which began to be called New Year tree, gifts and all other attributes. Russian people consider the coming year to be the beginning of new life, a chance to make the dreams come true. There is a nice tradition to make a wish while drinking champagne (at the time when the Strikes of the Spasskaya Tower Clock (Kremlin wall) takes place). Actually, champagne is the traditional drink of the first half hour of the new year. Then beer or vodka take place. People make a lot of preparationsbefore New Year’s Day. They clean their houses, make plans how they are going to celebrate the holiday, cook a lot of food. Russian New Year is different from American Christmas.  Russian New Year is usually celebrated with friends while in America Christmas is usually celebrated with family. The main attribute of Russian New Year is a dinner table full of delicious dishes and also the President's solemn speech which is broadcast at 5 to 12. After the speech and the strikes a New Year party begins. It is usually a very cheerful party with a lot of toasts, changing clothes, exchanging presents and congratulating each other. Russians can afford having a lot of fun on the New Years Day. December 31st is a working day, but January 1st and 2nd are holidays, so people can stay awake all night long (what they usually do). It is a tradition to stay awake at New Year night, and even children try not to go to bed as long as they can. People go out in the streets at night, gather around huge lit-up New Year trees put up all around town, visit friends and relatives (sometimes they do not even give them a call beforehand - New Year is the holiday when all guests are welcome!).

Russian Orthodox Christmas, January 7, is celebrated all over the country. After the fall of the communist rule, this sacred Christian holiday was brought back to life and has been observed ever since. The religious nature of the holiday is preserved in Russia. There are numerous church services and praising Jesus on this holiday. People may also exchange presents, but it is not much of a tradition. This holiday gives people another day off and a chance to think once again about Christ, God, the role of religion in their lives.

January 14 is another Russian New Year! Russians do love holidays!  This strange holiday goes back to the beginning of the 20th century. It actually has to do with the fact that Russia is mostly Orthodox, not Catholic, and with the lenght of the solar year. I oversimplified the explanation below, and I apologize for that, but it was done only to save your time and energy. If you want exact scientific facts, you may refer to Wikipedia and type "Gregorian calendar". It was Pope Gregory XIII who decreed the new Gregorian calendar on 24 February 1582.In the new calendar, the length of the solar calendar was calculated more precisely. The Julian calendar which had been in use before did not account for that. As a result, the calendar had been slowly drifting backwards (if we still used this calendar, in 20-30 thousand years winter would begin in June in the northern hemisphere). In 1582, when it was decided to switch to the Gregorian calendar, the drift was already accounted for 10 days. Thus, people had to adjust their calendars the whole 10 days ahead. It was just like we adjust our click twice a year. October 4, 1582, the last day of the Julian calendar was followed by October 15, 1582, the first day of the Gregorian calendar. However, quite a few countries decided to continue using the old calendar. They were mainly non-Catholic countries. The last European country adopted the new Catholic invention only in 1923, and before that it was often necessary to indicate two dates, both in Julian and Gregorian calendars, to mention some events correctly. (for example, "10/21 February 1751/52").  The new Gregorian calendar had been adopted by most Western countries by the 18th century. Russia was Orthodox, rural and old-fashioned in some ways during that time, so it switched to the Gregorian calendar in 1918.  It was not the last country, however. The last one was Greece in 1923. In 1918 the difference between the two calendars was already 13 days, so Russian people had to adjust their calendars 13 days ahead. The result was that January 1st became January 14. Thus, you see that January 14 used to be the New Year and is still being celebrated as the "Old Style New Year". Western countries have already forgotten the time when both the new style and old style were used concurrently, but for the Russians it happened not so long ago, and  "Old Style New Year" is the echo of the Julian calendar.  This is not an official holiday, and even not all people celebrate it. However, for most people it is a nice opportunity to meet friends and have a good time. The celebration is much quieter and smaller than that of the real New Year and the importance of the holiday is decreasing as years go by, unfortunately.

Saint Valentine’s Day, February 14. Nowadays this holiday is popular not only in America, but also in Russia. Of course it is not an official holiday. Just as in the other parts of the world this romantic holiday gives us a chance to say "I love you" to our beloved. Russians send valentines to their sweethearts, exchange small romantiс gifts, flowers. One of the nicest traditions is to use heart-shaped things on this day.

FatherLand Defender’s Day takes place on February 23. This holiday came to us from the Soviet times. It has been renamed several times. At first it was known as The Red Army Day, because the Red Army was created on February, 23rd, 1918. Later on it transformed into the Soviet Army Day. All Soviet men were liable to military service, so it was only logical to congratulate all men on this holiday and not only the military men. After the Soviet time had ended, the holiday was renamed into  "FatherLand Defender's Day" and just the same, celebrates all men regardless of age or occupation.

The most important holiday for Russian women is March 8, the official Women’s Day. It is anticipated for all women and even small girls. This is the day when men pay all  their attention to their beloved, their mothers, sisters, daughters. Women get flowers, boxes of chocolates, gifts, and a lot of kind and tender words from men around them. Some Russian men even do all the housework for their beloved women. It is a sign of deep love and appreciation. They cook, clean, bring breakfast while their women are still in bed and use every opportunity to say something nice to their women. It is really important because in everyday life Russian women do not get much attention from their husbands. March 8 is the day of spring, the day of women and FOR women. It is a unique chance for them to feel loved, admired, and cared for. In everyday life Russian women have too much work to think about their being women after all, but not on March 8. Forgetting to give a present or at least flowers on that day spells doom on a relationship. March 8 is an official holiday, and everyone gets a day off.

Shrovetide, or Maslenitsa, takes place in early March. This wonderful holiday which was also banned by communists is now brought back to life. The history of the holiday goes back to ancient times. Maslenitsa is the way Russian people celebrate the end of winter and the beginning of spring. The traditional food for
Maslenitsa is pancakes. Pancakes symbolize the sun, and the sun symbolizes the coming spring. A lot of festivals, fairs and carnivals are carried out throughout the holiday week. However, this is an unofficial holiday and people do not get a day of, unfortunately.

The main religious holiday for Russian people is Orthodox Easter. Easter is celebrated in late March or early April. The date of Easter varies from year to year, and moreover, Russian Orthodox Easter is usually celebrated AFTER American Catholic one. To be on the safe side, it is better to check the exact Easter date. You can do it by referring to the article below. There you will find Easter dates for the next 5 years. So why does Russian Easter go after American one? The question is very difficult, and the answer would be really complicated to read. I'll just say that it is connected with It’s Julian vs. Gregorian calendar, as well as with different interpretation of certain religious dates by Catholic and Orthodox Churches. There are some other things, but I do not think they all should be mentioned here. Easter is very important for Russians. A lot of traditional celebration goes on in churches, plenty of people attend the services. Some people are very religious, and this holiday is full of sacred meaning  to them. Others pay tribute to their Orthodox upbringing, and dye eggs and cook special food due to the tradition. Easter is not an official holiday, however. It is always celebrated on Sunday, but people do not have a day-off on some other day of the week, unfortunately.  

Dates of Easter Sunday 2007-2012:

Year

Western

(Catholic)

Eastern

(Orthodox)

2007 April 8
2008 March 23 April 27
2009 April 12 April 19
2010 April 4
2011 April 24
2012 April 8 Arpil 15

April 1 is Russian Day of Laughter. This is just the same as American April Fool’s Day. They also play tricks on each other in Russia! Jokes are usually funnyu and harmless. No dirty ones. Sadly, clowns do not get a day off.

May 1, Labor Day. This holiday was invented in the Soviet Union and was known as International Workers’ Solidarity Day. In the Soviet times it used to be a great celebrations with parades and public meetings. Nowadays Russian communists also have public meetings on this day, but it is more out of habit. And there are really few communists left. They try to use this chance to play on people's feelings, they want to restore the old Soviet era, nobody listens to them any more. People look forward for this holiday to come to get the anticipated days off. The weather is usually quite good on the 1st of May, so families and friends get together and go to the country where they have a grand picnic. They usually cook meat on the open fire on this day (the dish is called shashlyk and is marvellous!). A lot of families go to their dachas. A dacha is a real estate lot which is a summer house and a tiny piece of land  (usually less than 1/10 acre). The houses are usually withous modern conveniences - there may be no water,  or gas, or  bathroom facilitiesin the house. People use the land to grow vegetables and fruit, and also flowers. It is hard but pleasant to work while in a datcha.   As early May is planting season in most of Russia, May 1st with its long weekend is just the right time to go to dacha and plant this year's crop.

Victory Day, May 9. This hoiday can be called sacred for the Russian people. Russians celebrate the victory in World War II.  This was the heavist time for Russia, the country lost more than 20 million people in the war against fascism. A lot of Russian people do not like Russia, but on May, 9 they all unite under one great feeling of patriotism. Parades and celebrations, fire works and concerts devoted to the veterans take place in every part of the country. No one is forgotten, and people think about those who gave their lives for country. Naturally, Russians have a day off.  

In Russia as in every other country there are purely official holidays. These holidays are not merry and usually have next to no meaning for people, but they have one great advantage: they are days off. These are Russian Independence Day , June 12,  the Day of National Agreement and Reconciliation (November 7, it used to be the Day of October Revolution), and the Constitution Day (December 12). Although in most cases Russians do not care about these dates, they go with great pleasure to their dachas, meet friends or just relax at home. 

In conclusion, keep it in mind that Russian government usually switches weekend days around an oficial holiday so that people get 3 days off in a row. This is a very common practice. Thus, if May 1 falls on Tuesday, they will declare the Saturday immediately before May 1 a working day, and the following Monday - a day off.  People will get Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday off in this case. The Government declares about the change a few weeks in advance. If you want to visit Russia during holidays, do not forget to check when government offices are going to work. The thing is they may be closed earlier or opened later than the holiday itself comes. Prepare in advance if you need to do some official business. The positive moment is that if you visit Russia during a grand holiday, you will see the most beautiful side of Russian culture and people. Everyone will be in good mood and smiling. You will immediately understand what famous Russian hospitality is like.