Sunday, January 6, 2013

Russian Christmas, 2013

Russian Christmas, or the Orthodox Christmas, is celebrated on January 7th, because the dates are set by the Julian calendar.
St Isaac's Cathedral , 1979,  

This was the religion I practiced growing up, but later did not continue; so hard when you lose the language and don't really understand the words.  But now, if I am ever in a country or city that has an orthodox church and I am nearby, I light candles for my parents, and those long-ago memories of attending church services with my mother and sister come back.  At the time, the standing for two hours was not a pleasure.  There are no chairs or pews in Orthodox churches.  But now I can remember the beauty of the Icons, the a cappella singing and chants and the incense which added to the atmosphere.

The Russian Orthodox church philosophically differs from Western churches in many ways, but especially during Christmas and Easter.  The birth of Christ which is jubilantly celebrated in Western churches, is a more subdued holiday in the Russian church, because of the knowledge of Christ's suffering to come.    
It is Easter when the church celebrates, knowing his suffering is over and the eternal message, that of redemption, is repeated.  There is feasting, special food, which is brought to the church to be blessed, bells ring after midnight, and the mood is happy and joyous.

In 1979 when I first visited the then Soviet Union, I was amazed at how many churches I saw, especially in Novgorod which has many Medieval and later period churches, still shakily standing after so many years, boarded up and waiting.  And I thought to myself, this was a religious country, and I wondered what people who still believed did who wanted their babies baptized, last rites spoken, and words of comfort.  Now, of course it has changed and the Russian Orthodox Church is active again.  Crosses replaced Red Stars and Russians are free to attend services without stigma.  Churches are being restored, and again, the Russian Orthodox Church has the approval of the government.

In 1979 we visited St. Isaac's Cathedral in what was then Leningrad.  It is a beautiful cathedral with many Icons made of mosaics, columns of malachite and lapis lazuli, a Russian Vatican, but . . . there was a pendulum exhibit in the middle of the Cathedral where little wooden pegs were set up in a huge circle and the pendulum suspended high above the ceiling would knock over each peg as the earth rotated and the position of the pendulum shifted.  This to demonstrate science over religion during the communist era.  Yes, the church is beautiful but Science rules not God, it seemed to say.

Novgorod, USSR, 1979

The first photo is of St.Isaac's Cathedral with the closed altar in the background.  The second is of a small wooden church we saw in Novgorod; I do not know the date of the building.  The early wooden churches were made with axes, no blueprints and constructed "by eye."

It was wonderful to re-visit old travel memories.


  1. How apt I stumbled across your blog today, for only yesterday I was listening to my local BBC Radio Leicester station in the UK. They were interviewing a member of the Greek Orthodox Church, I found it very interesting.

    Two hours standing was also mentioned on the radio, myself a Catholic, I thought an hour and a half was bad enough!

    Good post

    1. It's a mystical religion and one I did not appreciate growing up. The standing was hard for a little girl and we were the only Russian family for miles around. I remember being so embarrassed when the priest came to bless our house, walking around the perimeter, sprinkling holy water on the walls, chanting. I prayed (a little irony here) that none of my friends would see him. Thanks for your comments.

  2. So interesting...I knew that Coptic Christians celebrate Christmas at this time but thanks for the additional info.

    1. I did not know this, Ghadeer. I worry about the Coptic Christians, now who are in Egypt. The political situation is not good for them.

    2. It isn't, many of them don't feel protected in their own country..

  3. Merry Christmas! Yes, we didn't appreciate being different growing up. I wanted to be whatever religion my girlfriend was and go to Sunday School with her. On our trip to Russia last year, we saw many beautiful churches (and lit many candles). My favorite was Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood in St. Petersburg. Many of the onion domes were covered in colorful enamels - but inside everything was done in gorgeous mosaics. It is the site of where Tsar Alexander II was assasinated - hence the name. Nice post!