All dates below are official holidays unless noted. December 25 is not a holiday in Russia.
January 1-2: New Year's Day. This is the major holiday of the Russian year, a family event centered around a fir tree, a huge feast, and gift-giving traditions transferred by Soviet leaders from Christmas to the more secular New Year's Day. Even the smallest children stay up to ring in midnight. Both January 1 and 2 are holidays.
Presents under a fir tree, a copious family feast, and a big man with a long white beard -- for a Russian, these traditions conjure up not Christmas, but New Year's Eve. The atheist Soviet government wiped religious holidays off the official calendar, but they couldn't suffocate the midwinter holiday spirit. Stalin, recognizing the people's unwillingness to abandon Christmas traditions, encouraged their shift to the more secular New Year's holiday. Even today, a decade and a half after the collapse of Soviet Communism, New Year's remains the primary event on the Russian calendar. Russian Orthodox Christmas -- celebrated on January 7, according to the Julian calendar in use before the revolution -- has reassumed some of its former significance, but it's seen as a day for attending Mass and singing hymns instead of gift-giving and family celebration. Those rituals are reserved for December 31, when even the smallest children stay up to ring in the New Year.
Some restaurants and clubs are tapping into Western New Year's rituals with expensive all-night parties drenched in champagne, but the majority of Russians consider it an at-home, family event. The appetizers emerge in early evening, when relatives squeeze around the over-burdened table. For the next several hours, people eat, drink, tell stories, and dance to favorite songs. Father Frost, or Dyed Moroz, delivers gifts sometime around midnight. Because most Russians live in apartment buildings, the whole coming-down-the-chimney tradition plays no role here, and family members pull presents from cupboards or from under beds. In fairy tales, Dyed Moroz is assisted by a Snow Maiden, Snegurochka, and some families dress up as the two characters.
Menu items reflect the end of the pre-Christmas fast called for by Orthodox custom, 40 days of refraining from meat and dairy products: beef and pork roasts dripping with fatty sauces, cured meats, veal in aspic, salads packed with diced ham and egg and heaped with mayonnaise, buttery pancakes heaped with caviar. . . . To drink, men stick to vodka; women either join in or sip nastoika, a homemade liqueur made of vodka brewed with berries, herbs, or roots. Pre-revolutionary aristocrats introduced fine French champagne to their Christmas feasts; the Soviets spread the tradition to the masses with the production of cheap sparkling wine that is still a staple of the New Year's table. The most popular brand is Sovietskoye (all categories but the brut are quite sweet).
The New Year's celebrations peak with a midnight fireworks display over Red Square, broadcast nationwide. The crowds of mostly young revelers in the square are so dense that few of them notice the freezing temperatures. In St. Petersburg, the biggest fireworks are shot over the Neva River across from the Hermitage. Back at home, many families celebrate well into the night, or go outside to set off their own small firecrackers. The first day of the year is a day of rest and lots of leftovers.
If you visit Moscow or St. Petersburg over New Year's, be sure to check in advance online or through your travel agent for special holiday events at your hotel. If you can't get invited to a Russian home, try one of the elaborate parties at traditional Russian restaurants such as One Red Square, Baltschug Kempinski hotel, or Le National hotel (all have great views of the Moscow fireworks). Meal service starts at 10pm or later. Seats are expensive and must be booked well in advance. For English-language listings on New Year's parties, see The Moscow Times newspaper (www.themoscowtimes.com) or The St. Petersburg Times (www.sptimes.ru). And practice saying "S Novym Godom!" ("Happy New Year!").
January 7: Russian Orthodox Christmas. Ignored in Soviet times, this is now a primary religious holiday, with many people attending midnight Mass and more festive meals.
January 14: "Old" New Year. Not an official holiday, but celebrated nonetheless. It's left over from the pre-revolutionary days when Russia followed the Julian calendar, which was about 2 weeks behind the one used by the Western world.
February 23: Defenders of the Motherland Day (Armed Forces Day). With the military draft still mandatory, many Russians see this as a general "Men's Day," involving much vodka and stories of hazing and corrupt commanding officers.
February/March: Maslenitsa, or Butter Week. Not an official holiday. The week before Orthodox Lent is traditionally a time to eat lots of buttery bliny (crepelike pancakes) and other rich foods that believers will forego for the next 40 days. Each day of the week has a significance, such as Cleansing Thursday when Russians purge overstuffed closets, and Forgiveness Sunday when people forgive wrongs committed over the past year. The origins of the holiday are pagan, and many towns stage raucous Maslenitsa festivals. It's not Carnival or Mardi Gras, but it's lively.
Known as Maslenitsa in Russian, Butter Week began as a pagan festival celebrating the end of winter. The arrival of the Orthodox calendar didn't extinguish this week of revelry, but turned it into a pre-Lenten party, a sort of Russian version of Carnival or Mardi Gras. The name comes from the butter used for pancakes eaten throughout the week -- pancakes whose golden warmth and roundness are meant to represent the sun and impending springtime. The butter also refers to the upcoming Lent, when Orthodox believers are expected to refrain from dairy products and other luxuries. To store up for this austere period, Russians indulge greedily in rich foods during Maslenitsa. Pancakes are stuffed with soft farmers' cheese, ham, or caviar. Eggy desserts grace the table, not to be seen again until Easter.
Maslenitsa was a major event in Moscow and St. Petersburg before the revolution, and after a Soviet-era lull, festivities are again staged at parks such as Kolomenskoye in Moscow and the Summer Gardens in St. Petersburg, as well as in villages and country estates on the cities' outskirts. A key part of the ritual is the burning of one or several straw scarecrows representing winter. They're paraded around a snow-covered field and then set alight as onlookers cheer, chant, and dance. At Kolomenskoye, performers in embroidered costumes revive traditional songs and children's games, and build ice forts for mass snowball fights. Everyone is treated to honey from nearby hives, and tea and barrels of mead -- a warm, fermented honey drink -- are prepared just for the occasion.
Dates of Butter Week vary from year to year, since it's linked to Orthodox Easter, but it usually falls between late February and late March. The original rituals have been adapted to modern times, with the big parties usually held on Saturday and Sunday to accommodate work schedules. Each day of the week has a significance. Thursday, for example, is Cleansing Day, when Russians are expected to clean out their cupboards and lives for the coming spring. Sunday is Forgiveness Day, and even in Soviet times it was common for long-feuding siblings to phone each other on that day to mend their differences. According to some traditions, Monday morning is teeth-cleaning day, when men are expected to drink large amounts of vodka to cleanse the remnants of fatty foods from their teeth.
If you're visiting Russia during this season, tracking down a Maslenitsa party is a great way to boost your mood and distract you from the cold slushiness all around. Some Russian travel agencies arrange special Maslenitsa tours. Check with your hotel concierge for a calendar of Moscow Maslenitsa events; or check The St. Petersburg Times website (www.sptimes.ru) for St. Petersburg parties.
March 8: International Women's Day. Begun by U.S. feminists in the 1920s, the holiday became a Soviet banner for gender equality. Today's Russian women lament that men get pampered 364 days a year and women get appreciated only on Vosmovo Marta (Mar 8). It's a sacred holiday and official day off work for everyone nonetheless, and every Russian male is expected to present flowers or chocolates to his wife, mother, daughters, and female colleagues.
April/May: Orthodox Easter. The date varies, but it's usually 1 or 2 weeks after Catholic/Protestant Easter. The following Monday is a state holiday, though Good Friday is not. The day has taken on greater significance since the collapse of Soviet atheism, and on Easter morning, every Orthodox church has lines of people waiting to have their traditional Easter cakes blessed. The holiday feast is the richest on the Russian calendar, with eggs a major theme.
April/May: Easter Arts Festival (Moscow). A weeklong event showcasing St. Petersburg's Mariinsky Company orchestra in Moscow and small choral ensembles performing in the city's cathedrals following Orthodox Easter. Bell ringing is a major part of the event.
May 1-2: Labor Day/Spring Festival. May Day parades under red Communist banners still wend through Moscow's streets, though they're no longer allowed on Red Square, site of the tremendous Soviet-era demonstrations of Kremlin-enforced proletarian solidarity.
May 9: Victory Day. The Soviet Union lost more people than any other nation in World War II, and even 6 decades later the day commemorating Hitler's defeat is a major Russian holiday. Every Russian has a relative or friend who served in what they call the Great Patriotic War, and the sight of elderly veterans pinning on rusting medals for a day is a poignant reminder of one of the most impressive feats of the Soviet era.
June 12: Russian Independence Day. On this day in 1990, the Russian Federation declared itself independent from the Soviet Union, a symbolic move inspired by nationalist movements in the Baltics and eastern Europe. Few Russians today know what the holiday commemorates.
Late June/early July: White Nights. Two weeks around the summer solstice, St. Petersburg puts on concerts, film festivals, all-night boat tours, and other events to celebrate the northern light. It's peak tourist season.
November 7: Day of Reconciliation and Accord. For 70 years this was called Revolution Day, marking the 1917 events that brought the Soviets to power. The post-Soviet government didn't have the heart to take away the holiday, so they renamed it. A dwindling number of Communist die-hards still gather around Red Square, visiting Lenin's tomb and lamenting the demise of his brainchild.
December 12: Constitution Day. Marks the 1993 referendum that approved Russia's first post-Soviet constitution.
Last week in December: White Days Festival (St. Petersburg). The city boosters' efforts to lure tourists during the snowy months, this festival includes winter carnivals in the city parks and a dense program of dance, opera, and orchestral performances. See www.whitedays.com for more information.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.