Just as the Christmas decorations are coming down across the UK, Russia prepares for its own Christmas. If you’re the kind of person whose spirits sink lower with every bauble that you pack away, then we’d recommend you join us for our celebrations!
For forty days, Orthodox Russians have abstained from meat and dairy products but now it’s time to mark the end of this period. The first star that appears in the night sky on January 6th signals that it’s time to go to church and celebrate mass. Afterwards, it’s the custom, as in the UK, to invite friends and family round for a feast. Presents are exchanged – this is sounding familiar, right? Well not completely – there are a few traditions that set us apart and of course, our Christmas dinner is a little different.
First, those traditions: Christmas Eve forms part of an old Slavic holiday known as Svyatki. It’s customary for single women to try to catch a glimpse of their future husband using a mirror and candles. Whether you treat it as a bit of a joke or carry out the ritual in all seriousness, you won’t be alone. It’s that time of year when the spirits are invoked to answer all manner of questions: will the New Year bring good fortune, health, wealth and happiness? And if you see a group of girls burning threads of string, then that’s because the one whose thread burns quickest is next to be married.
The menu for a Russian Christmas feast is also steeped in tradition. One such dish is vareniki – stuffed dumplings. Just as it was always the way to hide a sixpence in a British Christmas pudding, so too the dumplings might contain something. If you find a coin, then you’re likely to come into some money – and hopefully more than sixpence at that. A thread indicates that you’re going travelling and a tomato predicts love.
The very name for Christmas Eve is significant. Sochevnik has its origins in the word sochivo, or grain. That grain can take the form of lentils, peas, barley or even wheat and it is soaked in water and served as a kind of porridge right after church. You’ll also hear people refer to this porridge as kutya. Instead of turkey, you’ll be served goose, spread with a thick layer of sour cream sauce which gives it a delicious flavour when cooked. It’s quite common to bake the goose with apples, and just as we would serve an apple sauce with roast pork, it forms a tasty accompaniment. As a sweet treat, you could well be given a kozulya, which is a biscuit cut in the shape of an animal, usually a reindeer or perhaps a sheep or a goat.
So whether you’ll be in Russia this January or joining us in spirit, we wish you a very happy second Christmas and hope that 2017 brings everything you wish for.