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Sport & leisure - Russia


Folklore & traditions

Many Russians are superstitious. They follow old traditions and rituals on a special occasion and in everyday life.

Russian marriages are famous for their traditions : breaking of glasses, kidnapping of fiancée, drinking of salted water, etc.

bread & salt


An ancient russian tradition: the most precious guests are greeted with “bread and salt”.



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"The mummers - house serfs dressed up as bears, Turks, taverners, and fine ladies - formidable and comic figures, bringing with them a feeling of gaiety and the cold from outside, at first huddled bashfully in the anteroom. . . . Half an hour later there appeared among the other mummers in the ballroom an old lady in a farthingale - this was Nikolai; Petya was a Turkish girl, Dimmler a clown, Natasha a hussar, and Sanya a Circassian with burnt cork eyebrows and mustache." 

                --- Lev Tolstoy, War and Peace

Sviatki - A Costume Holiday

These people in costumes may seem decked out for trick-or-treating on Halloween, but in fact they are a group of Russian partyers in Lev Tolstoy's novel War and Peace, which takes place in Russia in the early 19th century. Here they have gotten ready to participate in a traditional Russian holiday custom that was practiced well into the twentieth century in some rural areas of the country - mummery. Around Christmastime, people would get dressed up in all sorts of costumes. Some mummers would dress up as animals (usually bears, although goats, horses and bulls were also common choices); others would dress in costumes of the opposite sex (girls would be male soldiers or exotic warriors, for example, and boys might dress up as aristocratic ladies or gypsy maidens); and others would go out as clowns or buffoons. As always, the use of costumes indicated a time when the usual rules of behavior were lifted, and people felt free to behave in ways that would ordinarily not be allowed. Between December 24, the start of the traditional Russian Christmas season, and January 6, Russian Orthodox Christmas Eve, mummers would go out into the cold winter night and sing Christmas carols outside the houses of their neighbors. This entire two-week Yuletide period is called sviatki in Russian. The mummers' songs are called koliadki, after the folk spirit Koliadas, whose celebration coincides with the start of the season, December 24. In return for their singing, the mummers could expect to get treats, which were usually small animal-shaped pastries. (If the audience refused to provide treats, the mummers might threaten to play tricks on them, a custom familiar to American trick-or-treaters.)


In the early springtime, during the week we call Mardi Gras or Carnival (the week before Lent), mummers would again go out into their villages. This time was called maslenitsa, which comes from the Russian word for butter (maslo) because dairy and animal products are not eaten for seven weeks afterward, and it was by far the most exciting holiday time in the entire Russian year. In addition to mummery, those celebrating would build enormous bonfires, often on top of a hill, so that the fire could be seen from all parts of the village; everyone was especially excited to see it eventually come flying down the hillside in a blazing spectacle. Building fires may seem a strange way to celebrate a holiday, but fires were an essential part of maslenitsa, as they were believed to welcome the warm spring sun, which the celebrants expected to drive away the winter darkness and bring a rich growing season. Other favorite activities included overeating and game-playing. Special buckwheat pancakes, called bliny, were the most popular food for this holiday (probably because their round shape could remind people of the sun), and they were devoured in huge quantities. Sometimes the people would build a big scarecrow stuffed with straw that they called maslenitsa and would burn it the night before the beginning of Lent in a final festive celebration before the start of the seven-week fast. Maslenitsa was a very lively and colorful time: people would decorate their horse-drawn sleighs with colorful ribbons and bells and go for rides in the snow, which still covers the ground in Russia in early spring. Both sviatki and maslenitsa seem to have nothing to do with Christian holidays, and this is because they were ancient folk rituals that the Russian peasants had celebrated long before they became a Christian people. After the Russians adopted Christianity in 988, they incorporated their old pre-Christian holidays into their observance of Christian rituals.


Russian Orthodox believers still celebrate Christmas on January 7, according to the Julian calendar, which the Russian Orthodox Church follows. Their celebration of Christmas does not generally include gift-giving, and is confined to a purely religious observance of the birth of Christ. New Year's is the Russian holiday that would probably remind you most of Christmas as it is celebrated in the United States. In preparation for New Year's, Russians decorate a fir tree (yolka) with ornaments and lights just as we decorate Christmas trees. On New Year's Eve (December 31) they prepare an enormous dinner for their families and friends and exchange gifts with each other. Grandfather Frost (called Ded Moroz in Russian - he looks a lot like our Santa Claus, although he's usually not quite as fat) comes in the middle of the night and brings presents to the kids. Instead of elves, Grandfather Frost gets help distributing gifts from the Snow Maiden (Snegurochka), a character from a famous Russian fairy tale. Parents and schools often have New Year's parties just for kids. At these parties the kids dance around the New Year's tree and sometimes get dressed up in costumes, like the mummers in War and Peace.

Other useful sections of the website


kuPractical life and expatriation in Russia

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