Recently, my wife and I were invited to a local television program to discuss family Christmas traditions.
I was pleasantly surprised by how many of my wife’s family’s traditions were similar to our own. It turns out that Christmas traditions are among the best preserved among all old Russian traditions. Today I’d like to share a few interesting tidbits from Apollon Korinfskii’s 1901 book Folk Russia.
The many meanings of the word “carol”
“Koliada was born on the night before Christmas…”
The Russian word for “carol”—“koliada”—is a strange word even in the Russian. Historians still can’t agree about its meaning. Even folk traditions can’t agree, giving the term all kinds of different meanings.
In North Russia, for example, “koliada” is the name for the eve of Christmas, and “caroling,” in that sense, means celebrating the day by visiting all the houses in a village with congratulations and songs, led by a makeshift “star of Bethlehem.” In the Novgorod region, on the other hand, “koliada” refers to the presents that the carolers receive during these visits.
In southern and western regions, “koliada” is synonymous with Christmas itself and even the entire 12 days afterward. As for Belarus, “koliadovat’” (caroling) traditionally means “to praise Christ”. But in Smolensk (not far from Belorussia), it means “to ask alms,” thereby losing its original meaning completely.
In ancient times, all Russia caroled on Christmas Eve. But the caroling tradition only survived in Ukraine and Belarus. Traditionally, the young people of the village, after having stood to the end of the long church service, would walk in a large crowd from window to window, staying longer near houses where there was a fire.
Generous hosts would “garland” the carolers with sausages, small pancakes, nuts, or even money. In the regions of Kiev and Volhynia, all the gathered money was all given back to the church. In other places, the money went to a special village-wide Christmas feast.
Even nowadays, Ukrainian carols are the most varied and ancient of all east Slavic carols. Here’s an example of one of the oldest, with some incredible and unusual lyrics:
On the blue sea
There’s a ship on the water,
In that ship
There are three gates.
In the first gate,
The moon shines.
In the second, the sun sets.
In the third, the Lord Himself walks.
He takes the keys,
And opens Heaven.
In “Great” Russia, few regions preserved their ancient caroling traditions. Most of the time, whatever survived was purely in children’s songs. Even at the beginning of the 20th century, you could see crowds of children in certain villages. They would always follow a boy carrying a lantern made in the form of a star. All the others follow him, running from house to house, wherever people let them in.
Koliada has come
On the eve of Christmas.
We went, we sought
In every yard,
We found Koliada
In Peter’s yard,
There’s an iron fence,
Inside the yard, the towers stand.
In the first tower is the moon so bright,
In the second—the brilliant sun,
In the third—a myriad of stars…”
This carol continues by praising the master of the house, who is called “the bright moon,” while his wife is called “the brilliant sun,” and their many children “the myriad of stars. Finally, the carol ends with
Greetings, master and mistress,
For many ages, many years!”
Sometimes, the ending is even more expressive:
The master in his house is like Adam in Paradise,
The mistress in the house is like a pancake in honey,
The little children are like the red-green grapes.”
Finally, the “star-bearer” bows and greets the master and mistress already not in song, but in regular speech.
How Ukrainians used to Greet the Coming Lord
The rites still practiced in some Ukrainian villages are reminiscent of the rites of ancient Rus. As soon as the first star lights the night sky (called the “star of Bethlehem”), the elder of any house brings a batch of hay into the house and lays it down at the main icon corner, then covers it with a clean sheet. Finally, a new sheaf of wheat or rye is placed on top of it.
The traditional meal for the evening—“kutia,” boiled wheat with honey—is also placed under the icons, along with a special juice of boiled pears, plums, and other fruits. Then, the dinner can begin.
Dinner is set on a white tablecloth, and everyone in the house sits down. All the food is Lenten, and the kutia and juice are eaten last.
During dinner, the women read the fortunes of the coming harvest. This is done by picking out the first bit of hay that comes out from underneath the tablecloth. If it’s a long piece, the harvest will be good. Then they take out a single straw from the sheaf that sits under the icons. If a full head of wheat comes out, then the harvest will be successful. If the straw is just a straw, then there will be famine.
When everyone has eaten and the mistress of the house begins to clear away the food, the fortune-telling continues. This time, the table is strewn with hay. If there are more black straws than yellow and red, then the rye harvest will be good. If there are more red and yellow than black, then there will be a good harvest of oats and wheat.
The sheaf of wheat stays under the icons until the New Year. After the “holy evening” (December 24) until January 1, no self-respecting mistress of the house will ever sweep away any dirt from the house. After the new year, they gather everything and burn it in the yard. This is for good luck, because it is supposed to protect the harvest and the vegetable garden from pests.
Christ walks the earth on Christmas Eve
There’s an ancient tradition that on midnight of Christmas Eve, the gates of Heaven open up, and the Son of God descends from the Heights to earth. “All-brilliant paradise” is visible to righteous people during this time, revealing all its treasures and mysteries.
All the waters of Paradise’s rivers come alive and begin to move. All sources on earth turn into wine and are given miraculous healing power. In the gardens of Paradise, the trees suddenly blossom and golden apples ripen on the branches. And from the depth of Paradise, the sun spreads its generous gifts to the land that is covered in snow. As the people say,
If anyone will pray exactly at midnight, everything he asks will be given. Everything will be as it is written.
There’s a Serbian custom to come outside at midnight and stand in an open field or at a crossroads and look at the sky. According to the words of the elders, God reveals the beauties of heaven to the righteous. They see how the golden Dawn leads out the sun from the depths of Paradise’s gardens. As the sun passes, it sprinkles Paradise with gold and roses.
Many more things do the righteous see, but, as the people say, fewer and fewer people on this earth are righteous. Most have eyes darkened by unrepented sins. No matter how much a sinner looks, he will see nothing but the sky and the stars on this night of revelations.
The Holy Days
The period after Christmas and before Theophany (January 6) is called “Sviatki,” the holy days. Ancient tradition, having saved itself from the merciless hand of time, never reveals itself so vividly as in the days surrounding Christmas.
The Holy Days are days of singing and feasting. It’s a time for which the rich imagination of folk beliefs and traditions were created. In the midst of the most difficult time of the year for the working man, the Russian folk seem to awaken from hibernation and boldly feast day and night, singing and dancing as though they have limitless energy.
Which traditions surprised you the most? Tell me in the comments section.
What I liked the most, purely as a writer of fantasy, is how the heavens open up on Christmas. The image of seeing another world in the skies is a compelling one for me. I’ve been thinking about “the Heights” as a trope in my novels, and I think just such a moment of “revelation” might appear in the next novel.
If you enjoy reading about Russian traditions, don’t miss another post. Sign up for my Readers’ Group. As a thank you, I’ll send you a free extended preview of my first novel, as well as a complete anthology of SFF short stories. Just tell me where to send them: