I’ve always loved good, old-fashioned pageantry. In my novels, I try to include moments of it, since it’s not something you see very often nowadays. But Medieval Russia really understood how to do pageantry well. Especially on major feast days of the Church. Today, translated from Apollon Korinfskii’s book Folk Russia, I’d like to share “How the Tsars celebrated Christmas in the 16th and 17th centuries.”
The Tsars celebrated Christmas beginning early in the morning on Christmas eve. The day began with the Tsar’s “secret exit” from the palace. The Tsars of Moscow and all Russia loved to commemorate every great feast of the Church with generous acts of almsgiving. This was certainly true of Christmas.
All of Moscow—from the first among the rich to the last among the poor—prepared for the feast as they were able. That day, every single alleyway and public square in old Moscow was covered with beggars, even before the sun rose. Everyone hoped that the Tsar would see them and not wish any of his subjects to remain hungry during the forthcoming holy days.
In fact, the Tsar’s “secret exit” was made known to anyone who needed to know. An action once performed as a pleasant surprise soon became a custom, and soon it was written down as an official part of the Tsar’s yearly business. If the Tsar couldn’t come out to see the people, one of the more important boyars would do it as his representative. In any case, only disease could effectively prevent the Tsar from fulfilling the duty himself.
Four hours before sunrise, the Russian autocrat would leave for his pious labor, dressed in the humble clothing of a simple boyar. The darkness of the winter night lay over snow-enveloped Moscow.
Before the Tsar walked a lantern-bearer. To either side of the Tsar walked members of the “Secret Department,” followed by the Streltsy. Everyone the Tsar encountered received money.
The first place he visited was the Great Prison Court (Большой тюремный двор). The Tsar visited every prison cell and listened to the complaints of every single prisoner. Some of them he would pardon on the spot. To others he would reduce sentence. Still others would receive a silver ruble and 50 kopecks for the feast. Then the Tsar would command a special feast for all the prisoners on the day of the feast.
After leaving the prisons, the Tsar walked through the “White city” and Kitai-Gorod (for more interesting facts on Medieval Moscow, stay tuned for a special blog post later this week). Every poor person he met, he gave a personal gift of alms. After finishing his “secret walk,” he would rest for a bit, change into his royal garments, and attend the Christmas eve service at one of the house chapels of the royal palace.
The Tsar stood, surrounded by his boyars, representatives of the Duma, and other courtiers, listening to the Royal Hours before Vespers. For the vigil service, the Tsar wore a special white fur coat, fringed with hand-wrought lace-work and stitching of solid gold. In this coat, he walked into the Cathedral of the Dormition in the Kremlin, where he stood attending to the entire service, which included a special doxology of the Tsar, exclaimed by the archdeacon.
After this, the Patriarch (as described by Zabelin), “with the authorities and the entire assembly greeted the Tsar.” The Tsar officially congratulated the Patriarch and received his congratulations. Then, having received a blessing, he returned to the palace.
In the twilight hours, as everyone awaited the coming of the first star, the clergy of the Dormition Cathedral, along with the Tsar’s picked singers, came caroling to the royal palace. Sometimes, small ensembles from the Patriarchal, Metropolitan, or other local church choirs would join them.
The Tsar would greet them according to strict protocol, usually in the “Golden Room.” By custom, he would give them both “white” and “red” honey in a golden and silver pot, respectively. Other than this traditional gift, each singer would also receive anything from 8 3-kopeck pieces to twelve rubles (a considerable sum for the time), depending on the “status” of the choir. Russian Tsars loved sacred chant, and so were especially generous to choir singers.
Then came the feast of the Nativity itself. For the traditional midnight service, the Tsar attended service at the “Golden palace” house church. At ten in the morning, Moscow heard the first festal peal of the bells calling all faithful to the liturgy. Soon all “forty forties” of Moscow’s church bells made the entire city shake.
By this time, the Tsar was in the “Stolovaia Room”—the most majestic of his rooms. He sat in his throne, next to which stood a special seat for the Patriarch. The boyars and the diaki (councilmen) sat on benches with velvet seats. All others stood.
After some time had passed, the Patriarch, preceded by the keepers of the Cathedral’s keys (an official title of the Cathedral clergy) holding crosses and bearing holy water. An assembly of metropolitans, archbishops, bishops, archimandrites, and hegumens accompanied the Patriarch. The Tsar stood at the Patriarch’s entrance as he praised the birth of the Lord. After the customary series of sung hymns, the Patriarch personally greeted the “keeper of the Russian lands,” and, after being invited, sat next to the Tsar.
After some time had passed, the Patriarch and his assembly went on to the palace of the queen. There, he greeted her and the entire family of the Tsar. All this while, the Tsar prepared for the liturgy in the Cathedral of the Dormition. At this liturgy, he bore his official regalia and dressed in his most festive “porphyry”.
After liturgy, the Patriarch was invited back to the palace for lunch. Traditionally, the Tsar himself never sat down until he personally inspected the feast and made sure everything was done according to his command.
This personal command included tables set inside the palace for the poor and orphaned, of whom many hundreds would come every year for the feast. The tables included:
- Savory pies
- Baked goods
- Wooden jugs of kvass (Russian ale) and mead
At the command of an appointed boyar, doormen admitted the Tsar’s guests and sat them at the tables. Each of them, from the name of the Tsar, received a small loaf of bread and a 50-kopeck piece. The appointed boyar would wait at the tables and ask the guests how they liked the food.
Only after the appointed boyar came to personally tell the Tsar that the guests were satisfied, given gifts, and send away with a merciful word, did the Tsar himself sit in his throne room to feast with the great and powerful.
After this official feast was over, the Tsar gave himself to his family entirely.
Among the many other traditions during this culturally rich time, the third day of the feast is especially interesting. The Tsar would pick one of the local monasteries and travel there by sled. This sled was gilded and fantastically decorated. The Tsar’s seat was covered with Persian rugs. Two intimate boyars and footmen attended the king in his sled.
The Tsar’s retinue followed him a caravan of sleighs. No less than one hundred Streltsy guarded them. Uncounted multitudes of people surrounded the Tsar’s sled. Many of them followed the “Tsar-father” on horseback, greeting the Tsar with loud cries. Having visited the holy places, the Tsar then always visited the grave of his parents, before returning to the palace.
That evening was a special party for the Tsar’s family in the “Amusements Room” (Потешная палата). Musicians played the gusli, violins, organs, and cimbalom. Jesters and dwarfs amused the Tsar’s family with songs, dances, and other entertainments. The first comedic plays in history were performed here (Alexei Mikhailovich was a great fan of theater).
Beginning with this private party, the feasting in the palace didn’t end until the day before Theophany (January 5).
Which of these Christmas traditions surprised you the most? Let me know in the comments.
If you enjoyed this post, and if you want to read more about Russian traditions and culture, be sure to sign up for my Readers’ Group. You’ll be the first to hear about my novels’ release dates, giveaways, and contests. As a special thank you, I’ll send you a preview of my new novel, a complete novella, and an anthology of SFF short stories, all for free. Just tell me where to send them: