How to enjoy the Christmas spirit in Russia

In Russia, Christmas is marked in January under the Orthodox calendar, rather than December 25, and is not celebrated in such a big way as it is in Europe. But this does not mean that you will be unable to celebrate Christmas fully. Moscow has everything you need to create a festive atmosphere: Christmas markets, gifts, cards, carols and, of course, snow. Only Santa Claus is missing here, but the Snow Maiden is an attractive alternative.

Anna and Arvid, a couple from Norway, are planning to spend Christmas in Moscow. Anna will cook goose with apples, and in the evening, they will attend a mass at the Roman Catholic Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary at Malaya Gruzinskaya Street. Christmas services in the capital can be heard in English, Spanish, Italian, German, Polish, Korean and other languages. They will be held in three Catholic, three Lutheran and two Protestant cathedrals. Mass will be heard two or three times in one evening.

Arvid has worked in Moscow for more than three years; this is Anna’s second Christmas in the Russian capital. “At first I did not know that I wouldn’t be able to find real Christmas cards – only New Year greetings are everywhere,” she says. “Santa Claus [Ded Moroz – a rough equivalent of the western Father Christmas]wears a blue coat and his granddaughter, the Snow Maiden [Snegurochka], is a blonde in a strange headdress. “These days, ‘proper’ Christmas cards can be found more often. One should buy them at local fairs; they start on or around December 20.”

Festive fairs

This year a record number of Christmas fairs will be held in the capital. More than 30 fairs representing European and Russian cities in the Journey to Christmas festival will be staged on streets in the city centre. European cities including Prague, Vienna, Brussels, Riga, Copenhagen, Alsace will be among those with fairs in Moscow. Strasbourg, Europe’s oldest Christmas market, will be in Moscow from December 24 to January 7 in the square in front of the Bolshoi Theatre.

There will also be many tents where you can buy traditional Russian souvenirs – Tula gingerbread, downy shawls from Orenburg and khokhloma painted wooden tableware. Nearby, you can buy a Christmas tree from while the route to neighbouring fairs can be traced with the help of the invaluable Christmas map of the city.

The popular Seasons of Life magazine will hold its third Seasons festival, a favourite with Muscovites, in the Hermitage Garden, this time in a traditional Russian style. Real carols (a rarity in the Russian capital), a Christmas bazaar, Christmas cave, caviar treats and a fair are all on the festival’s two-day programme.

For lovers of designer items, the Paradise Apples Christmas market will feature the work of more than 200 Russian designers and artists. Here you can buy handmade greeting cards, tree decorations, decorative angels, wooden Santa Clauses, and Christmas wreaths.

For seekers of rarities from the Soviet era, the Lambada market offers vinyl records, Christmas tree ornaments in the shape of rockets, astronauts, red stars, red plastic cones and vintage wooden skates.

Christmas delivery

Traditional Russian gifts are absolute must-haves. No one who has spent a couple of years here comes home without a rug, a tray, a pair of lapti (bast shoes), an ushanka (ear flap fur hat) or a T-shirt bearing Lenin’s image.

Patrick is from the UK and has been living in Moscow for two years. Every time he goes home, he brings a suitcase full of gifts. It is riskier and more expensive to send them by mail than to take them yourself or to ask friends to do so, he said. “If you send a gift or a card by Russian post in early December, it is possible your loved ones will get it in May,” he says. “The Russian post is very similar to the British postal service: they have a habit of delivering your parcel somewhere else, breaking it during delivery, or not delivering it at all.”

Patrick plans to spend this Christmas in Moscow. “My friends and I are going to go to Sokolniki Park to an ice-sculpture masterclass. On December 25 they promised to build a Europe in miniature from ice. We will see what the icy Leeds will look like…”

Many Muscovites and expats prefer to leave Moscow for the holidays. If they don’t go to their home country, they might head for places on the Golden Ring route, such as Yaroslavl, Kostroma, Uglich, the historical old Ryazan reserve and resorts offering special Catholic Christmas programmes.

“We are taking a family vacation in Nakhabino for the third year – there are great slopes, plenty of snow, and a forest,” says Alonso, a Spaniard who has lived in Russia for seven years. “Many foreigners who stay in Moscow for Christmas go there for the holidays.

“We celebrate every year together, even if we don’t see each other during the year.”

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