The holiday calendar of Russia is a great reflection of the diverse history: from the years of the Empire to the USSR. It contains public and patriotic holidays perfectly combined with religious ones. Let’s dive a little bit into the major celebrations!
New Year is the biggest and most cherished holiday of the Russian year. December 31 is the start of more than a major holiday, but an entire cult. Since the official Christmas was forbidden during the Soviet years, many traditions moved from Christmas to the New Year, including gifts under the Christmas tree and visits from the Russian equivalent of the Western Santa, Дед Мороз (dyed-maROZ), and his granddaughter Снегурочка (snegUrochka). These traditions take place alongside Soviet-era customs such as the salad called оливье (aleevYEH), sandwiches with butter and red caviar, the traditional Russian dish of aspic: студень (STOOden’) and холодец (halaDYETS).
This magnificent feast is followed by another week of official days off, so on New Year’s Eve Russians relax to the fullest, knowing that they have time to beat their hangover. On January 7, many people celebrate Orthodox Christmas with family, but decades of life under the Soviet Union, when religious holidays were canceled, means that this habit is not ingrained in many families. On the eve of Christmas, children go caroling – they dress up, paint their faces and go home telling rhymes. Caroling (колядовАние) is a Slavic rite of visiting houses by a group of participants, who performed “benevolent” sentences and songs addressed to the owners of the house, for which they received a ritual treat.
February 23 – Defender of the Fatherland Day
From 1922, this date was celebrated as Red (later Soviet) Army Day. Since all men in the USSR had to do military service (as they do right now. A few years ago, men had to do the military service for 2 years, now it is only 1 year), it quickly turned from being a holiday for soldiers to a general “men’s day”—even boys in kindergarten are congratulated on it.
Women break their brains about what to give men, while the latter joke that it will be another can of shaving cream or socks. Female staff often arrange office parties and prepare surprises for men, some dress up in military uniform.
March 8 – International Women’s Day
This is the day that keeps most Russian florists in business. Tulips are a particular favorite. Remember to give Russian women an odd number of flowers (even numbers are for cemeteries).
The history of this holiday is linked with the struggle for women’s rights: on this day in the revolutionary year of 1917, factory workers took part in a demonstration in Petrograd (St. Petersburg), and four days later Tsar Nicholas II granted women the right to vote.
Unlike in other countries, where this day is celebrated with demonstrations in support of women’s rights, Russia’s International Women’s Day is generally seen as a day of romance and love, similar to Valentine’s Day.
Easter (date varies)
Although Easter is not a public holiday in Russia, since it falls on a Sunday it is a day off for everyone. This is probably the most favorite Orthodox holiday for Russians.
Traditional breads are eaten on this day: the кулич (kooLEECH), or the паска (PASkah) in southern Russia, and boiled eggs are decorated. Russians greet each other with the phrase “Христос воскрес” (KhrisTOS vasKRYES), meaning “Christ is risen.” This greeting is answered with “Воистину воскрес” (vaEESteenoo vasKRYES), which means “Truly, He is risen.”
May 9 – Victory Day
This holiday is the second most popular after New Year. The morning always begins with watching the traditional military parade on Red Square on TV. Parades, fireworks, salutes, performances, and meetings with veterans take place all day across the country. People make sure to congratulate veterans, especially their relatives (the Great Patriotic War affected almost every family).
Soviet war films are shown on TV all day long. Since 2015, a new tradition has appeared: the procession of the Immortal Regiment. People carry photos of relatives who fought on the frontline in WW2, and remembrance events take place nationwide.
June 12 – Russia Day
Russia Day is a relatively young holiday, officially celebrated only since 1992. It was on this day that the Declaration of State Sovereignty of Russia was adopted, effectively independence from the Soviet Union.
This holiday is celebrated by 54 percent of the country’s population; for the rest, it usually means a beautiful long weekend in summer.
November 4 – National Unity Day
This is the newest holiday for Russians, celebrated since 2005. The history of National Unity Day is connected with the Time of Troubles and the Polish intervention in 1612. The heroes of the tale, Kuzma Minin and Dmitry Pozharsky (a monument to them stands on Red Square), headed a people’s militia and liberated the lands of Rus from the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.