Yuletide in Russia

By Mary P. Pringle and Clara A. Urann.


"Light—in the heavens high,

And snow flashing bright;—

Sledge in the distance
In its lonely flight."



In this enormous kingdom which covers one-sixth of the land surface of the globe, and where upwards of fifteen million human beings celebrate in various ways the great winter festival of Yuletide, it will be found that the people retain many traditions of the sun-worshipers, which shows that the season was once observed in honor of the renewal of the sun's power. With them, however, the sun was supposed to be a female, who, when the days began to lengthen, entered her sledge, adorned in her best robes and gorgeous head-dress, and speeded her horses summerward.

Russian myths indicate a connection with the Aryans in the remote past; their songs of the wheel, the log, the pig or boar, all show a common origin in centuries long gone by.

Russia to most minds is a country of cold, darkness, oppression, and suffering, and this is true to an altogether lamentable extent. But it is also a country of warmth, brightness, freedom, and happiness. In fact, there are so many phases of life among its vast population that descriptions of Russian life result about as satisfactorily as did those of Saxe's "Three blind men of Hindustan," who went to see the elephant. Each traveler describes the part he sees, just as each blind man described the part he felt, and each believes he knows the whole.

There are certain general features of the Yule-tide observance that are typical of the country. One is the singing of their ancient Kolyada songs, composed centuries ago by writers who are unknown. They may have been sacrificial songs in heathen days, but are now sung with fervor and devotion at Christmas time.

In some places a maiden dressed in white and drawn on a sledge from house to house represents the goddess of the Sun, while her retinue of maidens sing the Kolyada, or carols. Here again appears the ancient custom of gift-making, for the maidens who attend the goddess expect to receive gifts in appreciation of their songs.

The word Kolyada is of doubtful origin. It may refer to the sun, a wheel, or a sacrifice; there is no telling how, when, or where it originated, but the singing of these songs has been a custom of the people from time immemorial, and after the introduction of Christianity it became a part of the Christmas festivities.

Ralston in his "Songs of the Russian People" gives the following translation of one of these peculiar songs:

"Kolyada! Kolyada!
Kolyada has arrived.

On the Eve of the Nativity,
Holy Kolyada.

Through all the courts, in all the alleys,

We found Kolyada
In Peter's Court.

Round Peter's Court there is an iron fence,

In the midst of the Court there are three rooms,

In the first room is the bright Moon,

In the second room the red Sun,

And in the third room, the many Stars."

Strangely enough the Russians make the Moon the master of the mansion above, and the Sun the mistress, a twist about in the conception of these luminaries worthy of the Chinese, and possibly derived from some of Russia's Eastern invaders. In the above song, the Stars, like dutiful children, all wish their luminous parents good health,

"For many years, for many years."

In parts of Russia, the Virgin Mary and birds take the place of the Sun and Stars in these songs, which are sung throughout the Yule season by groups of young folks at social gatherings, or from house to house, and form the leading feature of the Christmas festivities.

It is hard to realize that the stolid, fur-clad Russian is a child of song, for such seem to belong to sunny climes, but throughout his life from the cradle to the grave he is accompanied with song. Not modern compositions, for they are quite inferior as a rule, but those melodies composed ages ago and sung repeatedly through generation after generation, usually accompanied with dancing in circles.

The Kolyadki cover a variety of themes relating to the gods, goddesses, and other celestial beings, to all of whom Christian characteristics have been given until they now form the sacred songs of Yule-tide.

On Christmas Eve it is customary for the people to fast until after the first service in church. They pray before their respective icons, or sacred pictures, recite psalms, and then all start for the church, where the service is, in most respects, the same as in the Roman Catholic Church. There are many denominations besides the established church of the country that hold services on Christmas Eve; but to whichever one goes, it is wise to hasten home and to get to bed in season to have a pleasant Christmas Eve dream, as such is sure to come true, according to Russian authority.

On Welikikdenj—Christmas—the people partake of an early meal. In some parts of the country it is customary to send extremely formal invitations in the name of the host to the guests who are expected to arrive that day. These are delivered by a special messenger and read somewhat as follows:

"My master and mistress beg you to consider, Father Artanon Triphonowitsch, and you, Mother Agaphia Nelidowna, that for thousands of years it has been thus; with us it has not commenced, with us it will not end. Do not, therefore, disturb the festival; do not bring the good people to despair. Without you there will be no pleasure at Philimon Spicidonowitsch's, without you there will be no maiden festival at Anna Karpowna's."


A Christmas Bonfire in Russia.


Who could absent himself after such an invitation as this? The place of meeting has been decided upon weeks earlier, for it must be with a well-to-do family possessing a large home to accommodate the guests that usually assemble at Christmas. The "fair maidens," each with her mother and retinue, arrive first on the scene, bringing cake and sweetmeats and gifts for the servants. They would sooner freeze in their sledges before the gate than be guilty of alighting without first receiving the greeting of their host and hostess. Having been welcomed, they next pray before the icon, and then are ready for the pleasures arranged for them.

One peculiar phase of these house-parties is the selecting of partners for the maidens, which is done by the hostess, the "elected" sometimes proving satisfactory and sometimes not. They feast, play games, go snowballing, and guess riddles, always having a jolly good time. Reciters of builinas (poems) are often present to sing and recite the whole night through, for of song and poetry the Russian never tires.

A pretty custom very generally observed is the blessing of the house and household. The priest visits each home in his district, accompanied by boys bearing a vessel of holy water; the priest sprinkles each room with the water, each person present kissing the cross he carries and receiving his benediction as he proceeds from room to room. Thus each home is sanctified for the ensuing year.

The familiar greeting of "Merry Christmas" is not heard in Russia unless among foreigners, the usual salutation on this day being "Greetings for the Lord's birth," to which the one addressed replies, "God be with you."

The observance of New Year on January first, according to the Gregorian Calendar, was instituted by Peter the Great in 1700. The previous evening is known as St. Sylvester's Eve, and is the time of great fun and enjoyment. According to the poet, Vasili Andreivich Zhukivski:

"St. Sylvester's evening hour,

Calls the maidens round;

Shoes to throw behind the door,

Delve the snowy ground.

Peep behind the window there,

Burning wax to pour;

And the corn for chanticleer,

Reckon three times o'er.

In the water-fountain fling

Solemnly the golden ring

Earrings, too, of gold;

Kerchief white must cover them

While we're chanting over them

Magic songs of old."

Ovsen, a mythological being peculiar to the season, is supposed to make his entry about this time, riding a boar (another indication of Aryan descent), and no Christmas or New Year's dinner is considered complete without pork served in some form. The name of Ovsen, being so like the French word for oats, suggests the possibility of this ancient god's supposed influence over the harvests, and the honor paid him at the ingathering feasts in Roman times. He is the god of fruitfulness, and on New Year's Eve Russian boys go from house to house scattering oats and other grain while they sing:

"In the forest, in the pine forest,

There stood a pine tree,

Green and shaggy.

O Ovsen! Ovsen!

The Boyars came,

Cut down the pine,

Sawed it into planks,

Built a bridge,

Covered it with cloth,

Fastened it with nails,

O Ovsen! O Ovsen!

Who, who will go

Along that bridge?

Ovsen will go there,

And the New Year,

O Ovsen! O Ovsen!"

With this song the young folks endeavor to encourage the people who are about to cross the gulf between the known and the unknown, the Past and the Future Year; at the same time they scatter good seed for them to reap a bountiful harvest. Often the boys sing the following Kolyadki:

"Afield, afield, out in the open field!

There a golden plough goes ploughing,

And behind that plough is the Lord Himself.

Holy Peter helps Him to drive,

And the Mother of God carries the seed corn,

Carries the seed corn, prays to the Lord God,

Make, O Lord, the strong wheat to grow,

The strong wheat and the vigorous corn!

The stalks there shall be like reeds!

The ears shall be (plentiful) as blades of grass!

The sheaves shall be (in number) like the stars!

The stacks shall be like hills,

The loads shall be gathered together like black clouds."

How singularly appropriate it seems that boys, hungry at all times, should be the ones to implore the god of fruitfulness to bestow upon their people an abundant harvest during the coming year!

In Petrograd the New Year is ushered in with a cannonade of one hundred shots fired at midnight. The Czar formally receives the good wishes of his subjects, and the streets, which are prettily decorated with flags and lanterns, are alive with people.

On New Year's Day the Winter Palace is opened to society, as is nearly every home in the city, for at this season, at least, hospitality and charity are freely dispensed from palace and cottage.

On Sotjelnik, the last of the holidays, the solemn service of Blessing the Water of the Neva is observed. At two o'clock in the afternoon the people who have gathered in crowds at various points along the river witness the ceremony which closes the festivities of Yule-tide. At Petrograd a dome is erected in front of the Winter Palace, where in the presence of a vast concourse of people the Czar and the high church officials in a grand and impressive manner perform the ceremony. In other places it is customary for the district priest to officiate. Clothed in vestments he leads a procession of clergy and villagers, who carry icons and banners and chant as they proceed to the river. They usually leave an open space in their ranks through which all the bad spirits likely to feel antagonistic to the ruler of Winter—the Frost King—may flee. For water sprites, fairies, gnomes, and other invisibilities, who delight in sunshine and warmth, are forced, through the power of the priest's prayers, and the showering of holy water, to take refuge in a hole that is cut in the ice beside a tall cross, and disappear beneath the cold water of the blessed river.



Branch of palm from Palestine,

Tell me of thy native place:

What fair vale, what steep incline,

First thy stately growth did grace?

Has the sun at dawn caressed thee,

That on Jordan's waters shone,

Have the rough night-winds distressed thee

As they swept o'er Lebanon?

And while Solym's sons, brought low,

Plaited thee for humble wages,

Was it prayer they chanted slow,

Or some song of ancient ages?

As in childhood's first awaking

Does thy parent-tree still stand,

With its full-leaved branches making

Shadows on the burning sand?

Or when thou from it wert riven,

Did it straightway droop and die,

Till the desert dust was driven

On its yellowing leaves to die?

Say, what pilgrim's pious hand

Cherished thee in hours of pain,

When he to this northern land

Brought thee, fed with tears like rain?

Or perchance on some good knight,

Pure in heart and calm of vision,

Men bestowed thy garland bright—

Fit as he for realms Elysian!

Now preserved with reverent care,

At the Ikon's gilded shrine,

Faithful watch thou keepest there,

Holy Palm of Palestine.

Where the lamp burns faint and dim,

Folded in a mystic calm,

Near the Cross—the sign of Him—

Rest in safety, sacred Palm.

Michael Yourievich Lermontov.

(Translated by Mrs. Rosa Newmarch.)


This is taken from Yuletide in Many Lands.



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