Until the Russian Revolution of 1917, Russia was a staunchly Orthodox Christian country. When the Soviets came into power, atheism was the order of the day and New Year's Eve and New Year's Day became national secular holidays celebrated with fervor.
Since 1992, however, time-honored religious traditions and customs are once again observed openly and with relish. Russian Orthodox Christmas (Rozhdestvo) is celebrated on the Julian calendar date of Jan. 7 each year. Russian Christmas Eve is the last meatless meal of Advent as it is in Ukraine, Poland, and other Slavic countries. In Russia, this Holy Supper is known as sochevnik (also sochelnik) or Rozhdestvenskyi sochelnik.
The word sochevnik/sochlenik derives from the word sochivo, a dish also known as kutya consisting of boiled wheat sweetened with honey. The meal begins only after the first star is spotted in the night sky, in remembrance of the Star of Bethlehem, which announced the impending birth of the Christ Child.
The Table Is Set
Hay is spread on the floors and tables to represent the Christ Child's manger and as a way to augur good crops of horse feed for the coming year, in much the same way clucking noises are made to ensure the hens lay a bountiful supply of eggs.
A white tablecloth, symbolic of Christ's swaddling clothes, covers the table and a tall white candle is placed in the center symbolizing Christ as the light of the world. In some families who eat bread on this night, a large round loaf of Lenten bread, pagach, is placed next to the candle.
The Meatless Meal
Advent is a period of fasting and so Christmas Eve supper is meatless and usually consists of 12 courses in honor of Christ's apostles. In very strict Orthodox families, fish, vegetable oil, and alcohol are not allowed, but in other families, they are permitted, but only red wine, not hard liquor can be served.
The meal begins with the Lord's Prayer led by the father of the family. A prayer of thanksgiving for all the blessings of the past year is said and then prayers for the good things in the coming year are offered.
The mother of the family blesses each person present with honey in the form of a cross on each forehead, saying, "In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, may you have sweetness and many good things in life and in the new year."
After this, if the bread is consumed, it is dipped first in honey and then in chopped garlic. Honey symbolizes the sweetness of life, while garlic symbolizes the bitterness of life.
After dinner, the dishes are left unwashed and the Christmas presents are opened. Then the family goes to church, coming home between 2 and 3 a.m. Christmas Day is spent with family and friends, feasting on a roasted piglet, drinking, singing and generally making merry.
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Kutya or sochivo is also known as kutia, koljivo, colivă, koliva, and more depending on which country you happen to be in.
This first-course Christmas Eve pudding of sorts is made with wheatberries, or other grains or legumes like rice, barley or beans, that are sweetened with honey and sometimes augmented with poppy seeds, dried fruits, and nuts.
The kutya is eaten from a common dish to symbolize unity and, in some families, a spoonful of kutya is thrown up to the ceiling. If it sticks, a plentiful honey harvest can be expected.
02 of 09
In Slavic countries where mushroom hunting and preserving them by drying is a national pastime, it makes sense that mushroom soup would be a Christmas Eve staple. In keeping with strict fasting rules, it is made with oil instead of butter.
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Appetizers known as zakuski follow the soup course. These zakuski range from salads made with vegetable oil or, preferably, sunflower oil, instead of mayonnaise because of the fast, and great quantities of pickled fish, shrimp, and vegetables like gherkins, mushrooms or tomatoes.
Pickled cabbage or sauerkraut is the star at the Russian Christmas Eve table and appears in many dishes, including the filling for pirozhki and other dumplings. Sometimes, it is served as a salad with cranberries, cumin, shredded carrot, onion rings, and a splash of sunflower oil. Vegetable "caviars" like ikra (similar to Serbian ajvar) are also popular.
04 of 09
Not all Orthodox Christians eat fish and eggs during fasting times, so not all families serve them for the Christmas Eve Holy Supper. For those who do, pike-perch, cod, carp, eel, whiting, and salmon take center stage. A salmon turnover like kulebyaka (identical to Polish kulebiak) made with eggs, dill, and rice would be delicious for this meal.Continue to 5 of 9 below.
05 of 09
Kidney beans (slow cooked all day) seasoned with shredded potatoes, lots of garlic, salt, and pepper to taste, or root vegetable stew known as ragu iz ovoshej are good choices for Christmas Eve dinner.
Beans and legumes figure prominently because they signify wealth and prosperity in the coming year.
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Cereals, grains, and dumplings appear in various guises on the Holy supper table. Buckwheat with mushrooms and onion, pirozhki stuffed with cabbage and egg (if the latter is allowed) and other delicious fillings, meatless pelmeni, rice dishes, kasha with dried fruits, and noodles galore grace the table and vary from family to family.
07 of 09
There is great debate as to whether bread is featured at all on the Russian Holy Supper table. Some say definitely not, others say Russians near the Ukrainian and Slovakian borders often have bobal'ki or loksa. The bobal'ki is either a sweet dish served with honey and poppy seeds or browned with sauerkraut.
Pagach, stuffed with potatoes or cabbage filling, is another bread item of dubious origin. If it is served, it is accompanied by a bowl of honey and grated garlic for dipping.
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Dessert on Christmas Eve in the strictest Russian Orthodox households is just dried fruits and nuts or a fruit compote known as vzvar, which means "boil up" and is virtually identical to Polish kompot. This sweet concoction made of dried fruits, like apples, pears, sour cherries, prunes, currants, raspberries, gooseberries, and raisins, is mixed with honey and sometimes spices and boiled in water. It's half drink, half stewed fruit.
Vzvar is a ritual drink served to celebrate new arrivals, so it symbolizes the birth of the Baby Jesus into the world. Some families serve more elaborate desserts like pryaniki (gingerbread cookies), animal-shaped gingerbread kozuli or kolyadki. Kolyadki are Russian Christmas cookies made, usually, with rye flour and filled with curd cheese. They are traditionally given to strolling Christmas carolers dressed as manger animals who go from door to door in rural villages singing.Continue to 9 of 9 below.
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For some Orthodox Russians, the only beverages allowed on Christmas Eve are nonalcoholic like Russian spiced tea and sbiten, a traditional Russian winter beverage made with fruit jams, honey, cinnamon and flavors of choice. It is typically served steaming hot from a samovar. It can be made alcoholic by substituting red wine for the water when it becomes a type of mulled wine.
Another favorite alcoholic beverage for the holidays is a nalivka (a cordial similar to Polish nalewka) made with figs, dates, walnuts, cinnamon, vanilla, cardamom, lemon peel, and sugar steeped in cognac. This drink is made at least three weeks before the holidays and often given away as gifts.