Russians and Their Holidays – Moscow, Russia, Europe

Some American holidays are growing popular in Russia. Valentine's Day is a no-brainer for them; they're sentimental, into hearts and flowers, and they add little stuffed animals to any holiday. They're figuring out Halloween, although the black-dyed food and the blood-dripping boar's head at a buffet let me know there is still room for improvement. As well some familiar celebrations with a Russian twist, Russians also have non working days you would never know existed.

In Russia, New Years is a combination of our New Years and Christmas. They celebrate with wild parties late into the night, but also put up New Years pine trees decorated with tree toys. Father Frost, helped by his adopted daughter, the Snow Maiden, distribute presents to children.

Christmas is a purely religious holiday. The day is determined by the Old (Julian) Calendar and is a week after New Years. Eastern Orthodox worshipers attend the long church services, later enjoy an enormous feast.

The Field of Snowme, as far as I can tell, is a purely Muscovite celebration. In the middle of January, after a lot of snow, somewhere around the city, a Field of Snowmen appears. I mean, a LOT of snowmen, probably 30 or so. Big snowmen. Some are six feet tall. Russian snowmen have straw hair, evergreen branch bears and pails for hats. I am certain that, once the sun goes down and businesses close, they hold a snowperson's ball, hop and dance all around the block. One year they appeared on the Old Arbot, the next they showed up by the Operetta Theater. How these things are decided, I cannot say.

Men's Day, February 23, was originally a day to honor the men who served in the Red Army. It has been broadened to honor all men. Russian businesses close for the day. Women give gifts to all the men in their lives: colleagues, husbands, fathers. (At work, the staff gave each of the men a flashlight.) A lot of men take the next day off work, too, to recover from their hangovers.

March 8 is Women's Day. Beginning on March 5 or 6, people rush frantically around the stores buying little stuffed animals, candy and flowers to give to the women in their lives. I found some little clear boxes of candy-covered nuts for my husband to give to each of the female staff members as a personal gift on top of the group contribution. (The irony of my finding was that his Women's Day gifts were not lost on us.) I gave the three babushkas who worked as concierges of our building small baskets of dried fruit. Imagine my surprise when they knocked on our apartment door at 10:00 p.m. that evening with stalks of heather and a box of candy for me! The holiday originated in cooperation with Germany, Austria, Sweden and Denmark; it is celebrated throughout most of Europe. The U.S. is losing out on this one.

Maslenitza celebrates the return of the sun after the long, dark Russian winter. Although of pagan origin, it is held at the end of Shrove Week. The word Maslenitza translates as Butter Festival because butter, like the returning sun, is gold. One eats blini (Russian crepes) because they are round like the sun. (Actually people eat blini all the time, but this is another happy reason to do so.) Our little park ran a Maslenitza Festival with folk singers, performing clowns, helium balloons and pony rides.

Easter, like Christmas, is calculated by the Old Calendar, so the exact date is slippery. As with Christmas, it is a purely religious holiday. The traditional greeting is, "Christ is risen", the response is, "Risen indeed". Eggs are dyed by boiling them in brown onion skins. They are supposed to come out a bright red, but mine stayed brown. The traditional Easter cake is a tall, single layer with white icing. It tastes a lot like dry bread. At midnight, the church bells ring and those in the service come out and make a procession around their church.

May 1, now May Day, used to be a Communist holiday, International Workers Day. It's hard to see much difference; the largest faction in the enormous parades that converge on Red Square is still the Communists. If you're lucky, you'll see the Communist girls' drum corps with their short, pleated white skirts, red jackets, red hats with yellow plumes, and their high-heeled white boots clicking, their hips swinging while they play their marching cadences. The Communists also provide a karaoke float, and groups of marchers sing folk songs and dance in the street. They really know hot to throw a parade.

Victory Day on March 9 commemorates victory in World War II. Close to 11 million Russian men died in the Great Patriotic War, and veterans are treated with great respect and honor. There is another big parade. On Old Arbor Street and in Park Pobedy (Victory Park), veterans wear their uniforms and medals. People go with their children to give the men flowers and listen to their stories.

September 1 is the first day of school throughout Russia. It is known as the Day of Knowledge. You will see children out and about having a special morning with their parents. The little boy getting a treat with his father at Zen Coffee was greeted by the balloons festooning the coffee house. People smile and carry wrapped packages. Everyone is excited about going to school in the afternoon. Students dress up in their best clothes. They bring their teachers flowers and gifts as a sign of affection and respect.

One of the best parts of living in Moscow is being surprised by holidays scattered around the calendar. The Russians are ready to celebrate at the drop of one of their really cool hats, so there's a good chance you'll have the opportunity to celebrate something if you take a trip to Russia.

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