Russia’s long and eclectic history has created a calendar filled with diverse holidays. Some are federal holidays, marked with national celebrations and mandated days off. Others are of lesser importance, marked in private, in passing, or by large minorities within Russia. The ones listed here are those that SRAS students have encountered while abroad in Russia – and ones which they may not know much about.
New Year / Новый Год
December 31, 2017 – January 1, 2018
(days off: Dec 30, 2017 – Jan 8, 2018)
The New Year is, without doubt, the most important holiday on the Russian calendar. It equates if not outstrips the importance of Christmas in America, if to compare the two holidays in the two cultures. New Year in Russia is a time to be together with family and friends, for gift giving, major consumer spending, decorating trees, and even watching and setting off fireworks. Midnight is, by tradition, marked by listening to the Kremlin bells chime (either as broadcast by most major television channels or by actually standing on Red Square). Russian folk belief, still seen as tradition by many, holds that one must toast when the bells begin to chime and that those with whom you toast will be near you for the rest of the next year. Most of the celebrations occur on New Year’s Eve (on December 31) but is then followed by about a week off work, a time meant to serve as a national vacation of sorts.
The New Year celebration in Russia contains many elements similar to those found in Christmas traditions in the West. These include the Christmas tree (known as a “ёлка” in Russian, which is also the standard name for a fir tree), a Santa-type figure called “Дед Mopoз” or “Grandfather Frost” in Russian, and presents. In the Russian tradition, Grandfather Frost’s granddaughter, the Snow Maiden (Снегурочка), always accompanies him to help distribute the gifts. Elves are not associated with the holiday.
The tradition of extended days off for the holiday actually dates to 1699, when Russia, under a Tsarist decree from Peter the Great, made the Julian calendar standard in Russia. Before this, Russia had dealt with multiple calendars with some using the Byzantine calendar (which celebrated September 1 as the New Year) and others using an older calendar (which used March 1 as the New Year). Both of these calendars numbered the years based on the Biblically-calculated age of the Earth. Thus, on Dec 20, 1699, Russia shifted from the year 7207 to 1700. The same decree standardized the New Year to January 1, which was then becoming the standard in Europe. Perhaps as a way to make the unpopular reform more palatable, and perhaps just because Peter always loved a celebration, the Tsar also decreed that the new holiday would be celebrated over a seven-day period with lights, fir trees, and military processions, and would end with a procession of a cross through the city streets. More about New Year and Christmas in Russia
Christmas / Рождество
January 7, 2018
(days off: included in New Year’s Holidays)
The Russian Orthodox Church refused to recognize the 1918 Soviet order to shift from the Julian Calendar to the Gregorian Calendar (now standard in Western countries and considered more scientifically accurate). The Russian Orthodox Church still calculates all its holidays based on the Julian Calendar, which is currently 14 days ahead of the Gregorian. Thus, December 25th for the Orthodox Church is January 7th for the rest of us. In the year 2100, the calendars will slip by another day and Orthodox Christmas will shift to January 8th.
In the Soviet Union, Christmas was effectively banned under the officially atheist Soviets in 1925. The holiday has not gained much in popularity since its official re-institution in 1992. Some Russians do not celebrate the day at all, while some have a family dinner and/or attend Church to celebrate. Very, very few exchange gifts. For those Russians who do celebrate the holiday, it is celebrated as an exclusively religious holiday. Russians with Western friends will often think to congratulate or call these friends on December 25. More about New Year and Christmas in Russia
Incidentally, Christmas in January is not so strange, historically. The Romans celebrated Christmas on January 6th up until the year 354, when the bishop of Rome changed it. Some say this change was made according to scholarship available at the time, others say that the day was moved to appease northern pagans who celebrated the birth of a sun god on this day.
Old New Year / Старый Новый Год
January 13-14, 2018 (not days off)
In one of history’s quirkier notes, the Soviets changed the Russian calendar four times. After switching to the Gregorian Calendar in 1918, the Soviets then switched to the “Eternal Calendar” in 1929. That calendar featured 12 months, each with six 5-day weeks. There were five national holidays, which were days off, but other days off were staggered. This was meant to increase factory production, but proved confusing and disruptive. In an attempt to reform the reform, in 1932 a new calendar was unveiled with twelve months of five six-day weeks, which gave regular days off. This system was still a source of confusion and complaint, however, and in 1940 the seven-day week and the Gregorian calendar were brought back in full.
Within all that confusion, however, Russians never lost sight of what was important: making sure the New Year got celebrated. Perhaps to make up for the confusion, Russians just started to celebrate both New Years – as marked by the Gregorian and by the Julian Calendar, thus creating a new holiday known as the “Old New Year.” Although it is not an official holiday recognized by the state, it is still often celebrated with food and drink and sometimes small gifts. It’s also often called out as something truly Russian and held as something that sets Russians apart from other cultures.
Lunar New Year/ Лунный новый год
February 16, 2018 (not a day off)
Asian cultures traditionally follow the lunar calendar – based on cycles of the moon. Russia, with borders and cultural ties to China, Japan, and the Korean peninsula, has partially absorbed the tradition. While many Russians do not directly celebrate the day, most follow the related astrology and thus nearly any Russian can tell you that 2018 is the year of the dog, for instance. Russia does have a significant number of Asian immigrants, however, and thus finding celebrations of this holiday, especially in places like Vladivostok, which has large concentrations of those immigrants, is generally not difficult in Russia.
Maslenitsa / Масленица
Feb 12 – 18, 2018
(not a federal holiday; no extra days off)
This full week of celebration is Orthodox Christianity’s version of Mardi Gras. The etymology of the name is debated. Most seem to agree that the word is taken from two Russian words: Масло (butter or oil) and “неделя” (week). This would mean that the name would translate as “butter week.” Other sources report that the name comes from a corruption of an older name: Мясопусто, which came from the words “мясо” (meat) and “пусто” (empty). Either of these names make sense as it is the week in which Russians feast on eggs, butter, cheese, and milk (and abstain from meat).
The week is steeped in pagan tradition. Maslenitsa is still seen as the beginning of spring and the end of the long Russian winter, known for its severity and duration. This was a time when the ancient ancestors of the Russians worshiped a sun god, in the hopes that he would stay long and bring bountiful harvests. Bliny (блины – a kind of buttery crepe) was and is baked and eaten as a symbol of the sun. The modern Orthodox have resolved this pagan connection by claiming that the sun is a symbol of Christ, or at least his holy spirit (which is also depicted by the golden circle that always occurs behind his head in Russian Orthodox icons). Whatever their meaning, blini are tasty and are baked and eaten in very large quantities, meaning that just about anyone that comes in contact with this holiday is likely to fall in love with it. In addition, the holiday is also traditionally celebrated with music, bright colors, bonfires, a stuffed “Lady Maslenitsa” (who is burned in the bonfire), as well as sledding and snowball fights, if there is still sufficient snow. More on Maslenitsa
Defenders of the Fatherland Day /
День Защитника Отечества
February 23, 2018
(days off: February 23-25)
Imagine Father’s Day in military uniform and you have a rough approximation of Defenders of the Fatherland Day. Since all Russian men are supposed to serve in the army (although it is possible not to serve), this day is technically the day of all men. It’s history is briefly as follows: as the Russian Civil War was escalating in 1918, and as the danger of a German advance into the USSR continued, the Soviets declared a state of emergency and called for a draft in St. Petersburg. Ten thousand people signed up on February 23, 1918. It is interesting to note that most Russian histories still record these people as “volunteers” (добровольцев) while Western historians prefer the harder term “draftees” (призывник). The day was first celebrated in Moscow as “Day of the Birth of the Red Army” in 1922. It was made an official holiday in 1923 under the name “Day of the Red Army.” The name changed again in 1946 to “Day of the Soviet Army and Navy.” As the Soviet Union ceased to exist in 1991, the holiday’s name was also changed then to its current “Day of the Defenders of the Fatherland.” Men are congratulated, given cards, flowers, and gifts on this day. Socks and shaving kits are widely sold in grocery stores as stand-by gifts.
March 8, 2018
(days off: March 8-11, 2018)
This day is similar to Mother’s Day in America, except that all women are celebrated. Be prepared with flowers and possibly candy, a card, etc. for the important women in your life. There will be dozens if not hundreds of pop-up kiosks and rogue sellers of flowers flooding the city streets in the buildup to this day to meet demand.
Historically, March 8 has long been internationally associated with women’s rights, beginning with a famous mass protest in New York on March 8, 1857, when women from sewing and shoe factories demonstrated for rights equal to those of men. Men had recently won a 10-hour workday. Women, however, were forgotten in the legislation and kept to a 16-hour workday. The strike was well-publicized and became a day for regular demonstrations in the US and Europe.
In 1910, during a meeting of women in the Socialist International, a proposal was made to adopt March 8th as an international socialist holiday marking the struggle for women’s rights. The International adopted the idea, proclaiming just such a holiday, but did not assign to it any particular date, leaving that decision up to the party members from each country. The day was first celebrated in St. Petersburg in 1913, but did not become an official state holiday and day off until 1965.
The greatest historical significance of the date for Russians, however, is as the date that Russian women first gained the right to vote: on March 8, 1917 (according to the Julian Calendar), under the newly installed Provisional Government. Russian women had campaigned for more rights as the war effort during WWI had necessitated that they take on a greater role in the workforce and society. American women, incidentally, gained the vote three years after the Russians.
“Crimean Ascension Day”
March 18, 2018
(typically marked on a nearby weekend)
This is not an official holiday, but it has been marked every year since Crimea’s ascension to The Russian Federation by large-scale demonstrations and celebrations. In major Russian cities, there are often concerts, marches, and more. Expect public transport to be overloaded, the police to be out in force, and several streets and public places to be blocked off for the official, often politically-charged events.
Nowruz / Persian New Year
March 20, 2018
This holiday is of much more importance in Central Asia, which was greatly influenced by Persian culture, than to Russia itself. The Persians marked the New Year on the day of the Vernal Equinox – the day in spring when night and day are perfectly evenly divided. While outright celebrations in Russia are fairly rare, news of the holiday being celebrated in Central Asian states is often carried on Russian television. Russia also has a large number of Central Asian immigrants, so seeing recognition of the day – sometimes by increased instances of people in national dress – is not uncommon.
Orthodox Easter / Православная Пасха
April 8, 2018 (always on a Sunday)
According to the Orthodox Church, Easter is held on the first Sunday after the date of the first full moon that occurs on or after March 21. Thus, Orthodox Easter is usually on a different day from Catholic (Western) Easter.
Orthodox Easter is traditionally celebrated with church attendance, and especially with the blessing of the kulich (a type of slightly sweet bread) and paskha (made by blending cottage cheese with things like dried fruit, honey, and/or spices). Paskha can be eaten straight or used as a spread on the (often dry) kulich. Like in the West, eggs are boiled and decorated – often with simple, traditional means like by drawing on the egg with wax and boiling it it with brown or red onion skins. Simple, traditional foods such as сырники (a kind of cheese fritter) and блины (a sort of crepe – click for more info) are also popular ways to mark the holiday.
People great each other with “Христос воскрес” (Christ is risen), to which the reply is “Воистине воскрес” (Truly risen). Church services led by the Patriarch are broadcast on national TV and public transport runs til the wee hours to accommodate the late mass.
The Day of Spring and Labor /
Праздник Весны и Труда
May 1, 2018
(days off: April 29- May 2, 2018;
Saturday, April 28 is a workday)
Formerly International Worker’s Solidarity Day under the old Communist system, it seems that everyone calls this one something different now. “Labor Day,” “The May Holiday,” and “Worker’s Day” all seem to be used, but everyone at least uses the same date. It is celebrated with parades, concerts, food, and drink and traditionally kicks off the dacha season, meaning that most usually spend the holiday outside the city with family.
Victory Day / День Победы
May 9, 2018 (day off)
This day celebrates the end of WWII (The Great Patriotic War, as Russians know it), in which Russia lost some 20 million people. Understandably, the Russians take this day quite seriously; imagine Memorial Day and the Fourth of July in America combined to get some indication of its scope. It is celebrated by parades, concerts, fireworks, recognition of veterans (who usually dress up for the occasion) and, of course, food and drink. As it is quite close to the May 1-2 holidays, many Russians take extra time off from work to bridge the two holidays. This is often used to travel abroad or to escape to their dachas for nearly two weeks so as to “open” it for the summer season (clean it of winter debris, prepare the gardens, do general repairs, etc.).
In 2009, a bill was offered by the ruling United Russia party that would have officially moved some of the extra-long New Year’s holiday to the May holiday. This was supported by many Russians who argued that the extra days off in May would be more conducive to constructive use of the time while the extra time in the dead of winter was conducive only to alcoholism. The bill was voted down, largely based on keeping the tradition of the long New Years, already in place for centuries, and perhaps for keeping Orthodox Christmas a day off (which falls into the New Year holidays). The idea is still raised often.
International Children’s Day /
Международный день защиты детей
June 1, 2018 (not a day off)
This international holiday, which was founded in France originally, focuses on the rights of children. The day is widely marked in Russia mostly with events held in parks which focus on education and play.
Russia Day / День России (day off)
June 12, 2018
(day off: June 10-12;
Saturday, June 9 is a workday)
This holiday commemorates the adoption of the 1991 Declaration of Sovereignty of the Russian Federation which declared Russia’s “independence” from the USSR. However, many Russians are still unaware that this was ever done. They view Russia, instead, as a successor state to the USSR and a product of other states having left Russia. In accordance with this view, this holiday is generally celebrated simply as a show of patriotism for Russia, similarly to Victory Day, with parades, demonstrations, and fireworks set off at 10 p.m. More on Russia Day.
The Day of Knowledge / День знаний (work day)
September 1, 2018 (not a day off)
The first day of school is widely celebrated as a holiday in the Russian speaking world. Besides going to school, the day is marked by giving flowers to teachers, a speech given by the director of the school to the students (at MGIMO, the remarks are given by the Minister of Foreign Affairs), and other events such as the “first bell” (первый звонок) where a first grade girl is lifted to the shoulders of an older male pupil to ring in the first school day.
People’s Unity Day / День народного единства
November 4, 2018
(days off: November 3-5, 2018)
Russia’s absolute newest holiday, created in 2004, celebrates the liberation of Moscow from Polish troops in 1612 and the subsequent end of the “time of troubles.” This is the first time in nearly 400 years, however, that an official state holiday has marked the occasion, leading many Russians to ask why it was created. It’s very possible that when the Duma abolished November 7 (formerly Revolution Day) from the national calendar, they felt a holiday was needed in November so that people would not have to go from June to January without one. November 4 was sufficiently important. Given its proximity to the old holiday, many Russians still associate it with the communist holiday. The communists have actively boycotted the holiday and marked the seventh with demonstrations instead. In any case, the new holiday is celebrated the same as the old holiday: with political activism – only this time that activism is coming largely from the United Russia party.
Mother’s Day / День матери
November 27, 2018 (Always on a Sunday)
Created only in 1998, this holiday has only recently begun to take hold in Russia. It is still vastly overshadowed by the older and better-established Women’s Day. Recent boosts in observation have come largely through increased reminders on TV news reports and related events staged by NGOs and other organizations concerned with Russian demographics. It always falls on the last Sunday of November. Father’s Day does not yet exist in Russia (and if it did, would be overshadowed by Defenders of the Motherland Day).
City Day / День города
Varies by city
Each city in Russia celebrates its official founding date with fireworks, concerts, speeches by local politicians and other figures, food, drink, and other city-specific festivities. City days are set by each city individually and some are set days while others are variable. For example, Moscow’s celebrations are always on the frst Saturday of September, Irkutsk’s on the frst Sunday of June, and Kiev’s on the last Sunday of May. However, St. Petersburg always celebrates on a set date (May 27).
St. Valantine’s Day and Halloween are starting to make inroads in Russia. Both, however, are largely limited to younger people living in cities and are generally observed by going to a cafe, restaurant, or club for a themed day. Bookstores in major cities will often have stands featuring romantic or scary books for the respective holidays. However, both holidays are disapproved of by the Russian Orthodox Church and conservative Russians as being negative influences.
Another example of Western influence is the arrival of Black Friday to Russia, which is now widely and openly observed and advertised in major cities. Stores and even theaters and concert halls now run specials on this day. This is, of course, despite the fact that Russia doesn’t observe Thanksgiving, a specifically American holiday (although one can find at least one restaurant in St. Petersburg and Moscow that will be serving a special turkey dinner that attracts the foreign populations in those cities).
The Russian Duma passed a bill on December 24, 2004 eliminating two Soviet Era holidays:
November 7. Day of Accord and Reconciliation / День Согласия и Примирения (day off)
The 1917 Russian Revolution occurred in October according to the Julian calendar. Although the Russians quickly changed the calendar, the name “October Revolution” stuck, despite the fact that it occurred on Nov 7th according to the new, Gregorian calendar. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the name of the day was changed from “The Day of the Great Revolution of October 1917,” and its official purpose changed to celebrate the unity of Russia. However, in a recent poll some 50% of Russians stated that they didn’t know why they celebrate the day. Some said that they celebrate it to celebrate not having to celebrate the Revolution anymore! Given the fact that the “Day of Accord and Reconciliation” was so short-lived, perhaps that was it’s actual purpose, in retrospect.
December 12. Constitution Day / День Конституции (day off)
The date of this holiday changed several times over the course of history, with each new Soviet/Russian constitution from Lenin to Stalin to Brezhnev to Yeltsin. Celebrated with fireworks, food, and drink.