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Russian customs and traditions. Common rituals. Birthday a Russian way. Russian zastolie.

Assimilation and Tradition.

A Russian girl with samovar

Russian Tea Time traditions

Russian Tea Time traditions are one of the longest in Russia. Foreigners might think that vodka is the national beverage of Russia, but in fact that honor goes to tea. Due the icy climate, Russians drink hot tea throughout the day as a source of both nourishment and warmth.

In many other countries, tea is made by steeping tea leaves in hot water until they have reached the desired strength. However, in Russia, more tea leaves are steeped in less water to create a very concentrated brew called zavarka, boiled for at least five minutes or possibly all day. This brew is then diluted with hot water when it is served. Russians also enjoy mixing different types of tea - for example, black tea with herbal tea. Russian tea is strong, and is almost always flavored with lemon or poured over lemon slices studded with cloves. For sweeteners, Russians use sugar, honey, or jam. Instead of dissolving sugar into the tea, some Russian tea drinkers prefer to hold a sugar cube in their mouths as they drink.

To heat the water, a special device called a samovar was traditionally used. The samovar was an ingenious device that illustrates the Asian influence in Russian culture. Since Russians love to mix black and herbal teas, tea pots are made to nest together: the tea pot with the zavarka fits on top of the samovar, and the tea pot for the herbal tea fits on top of that.

Traditional Russian tea time consists of tea and a variety of sweet snacks, including at least one pie, crepes or pancakes, and jam to go with the pancakes or into the tea.

Russian Banya

Banya has been the essential element of Russian culture since the ancient times. It preserved almost untouched till now.

Traditional banya is a wooden house warmed to the extreme heat. The process involves relaxing in the steam room with the temperature often exceeding 200 degrees Fahrenheit (93 degrees Celsius). Certain herbs are added to the water of the banya to intensify the experience. After the first good sweat is induced, it is customary to cool off in the breeze outdoors or splash around in cold water or in a lake or river. In the winter, people may roll in the snow with no clothes on or may run to cold lakes where holes have been cut into the ice for post-banya bathing purposes. Then the banya is re-entered and small amounts of water are splashed on the rocks. People often hit (massage) themselves or others with bunches of dried branches and leaves from white birch, oak or eucalyptus (called veniks, веник) in order to improve the circulation. Cooling off is repeated after each sweat. A person may take a break to drink tea or other beverages and just relax. To fully experience the banya you must be able to spare around two hours. After which, you'll emerge scrubbed, polished, purged and totally relaxed.

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Russias believe that banya has lots of healing purposes. This is the first remedy to fight respiratory illnesses as harmful bacteria and viruses die in high temperatures. Among the other banya benefits are improving the work of the kidneys, opening the skin pores, cleaning it and making it softer and fresher, getting rid off excess lactic acid in the muscles, boosting metabolism, etc. Banya is a total revitalization of the mind and body and the best remedy to fight the stress. Besides, it is a popular social activity as the people talk, play board games in the intervals.

Since the medieval times the banya bliss is greatly appreciated by Russians. For many weekly visits to banya are a part of a lifestyle. When the own house is designed Russians most often think of the space for banya. Lots of private banyas are available in all Russian cities ranging from exquisite places with luxurious facilities to more moderate consisting of parilka (steam room), pre-bath and a rest room. The pool is a must of course.

Birthday Celebrations

Birthday Celebrations became a family holiday in Russia in the 17th century. On the birthday eve, the family cooked kalachi (sweet pies) and brewed beer. As always, Russians like to celebrate in style, so the birthday celebration is now usually a lavish dinner with many dishes. It is a custom for the birthday person to provide the feast, and this includes paying for dinner if the celebration takes place in a restaurant. The celebration can sometimes go on for more than one day. A playful form of congratulations to the birthday person, is to pull their ears for the number of years they are! It is a playful joke, but it means that we wish them a long and happy life. This ritual goes back to the old Ukrainian tradition to spank children near field boundary so that they know its location for sure.

A wide -spread Russian custom, often regarded as superstition is that birthday parties should be celebrated on or after one's birthday, not before. So when one's birthday falls during the week, it's best to celebrate the following weekend

Paying visits - Russian way

Russians are famous for their hospitality and show the willingness to allow others into their real personal lives. This is expressed is the Russian tradition of "идти в гости (к кому-нибудь)" [visit, pay a visit, go on a visit (to someone).

Russian way of 'going as a guest' includes much more than it generally does in the west - in Russia when they invite you for a cup of tea, that's not all they have in mind. More likely you'll be treated to a huge dinner that will stretch out into infinity with many courses and wine and then deserts and coffee and vodka and cucumbers and deeply intriguing conversations on life, death, politics, love and the meaning of it all.

However the contemporary tendencies of getting together with friends in bars and coffee shops, especially popular in big cities among younger generations show the decline of this traditions. People tend to value their time and privacy more and are not longer interested in talking about life in the kitchens, but prefer something more exciting like cafes, bowling, sports clubs, etc. Big distances, work over time, constant lack of time and hectic lives of megalopolises do not leave much space for paying visits, neither for preparing fro these visits. People would rather come to the coffee shop, spend time with friends, pay and leave not depending on anyone.

The elderly population that is unlike to the western courtiers have fewer financial possibilities for arranged past time still keeps this tradition.

Russian zastolie (table party)

Russian zastolie

Russian zastolie ("stol" means the table) can hardly be translated as it comprises a broader meaning than just a kind of festive meal or table party and has a special spirit. Russian zastolie is the essential part of every holiday in Russia. It is getting together for long, abundant dinners, enjoying food, drinks and conversation. Russian habit to offer a meal to anyone entering your home regardless the time of the day, weekday or weekend and guest’s relation to the family comes from the ancient times.

Russians have always loved treating guests generously. The festive table in ancient Rus was a place where frank and cordial talks took place and decisions were taken. Matchmaking, wedding, birthday, baptizing, trade deals all were followed by zastolie. Zastolie had certain rituals and traditions. The hostess started the feast. She approached each male guest with a bow, kind words and a cup of wine. Then she joined the women who had a separate table or even celebrated in a separate room. The abundant treat was impolite to refuse. Sobriety was not welcome; however the ability to stay sound as long as possible was appreciated. If someone fell down from the food and drinks, he was carefully taken home by the host’s servants. Saying toasts was obligatory. Since then the toasts are characteristic of Russian zastolie and demonstrate the good attitude to the hosts. Russians toast abundantly and with flourish, show wit and humor. The toasts can be long and sentimental, include quotes and lyrics. Many of these traditions are observed in the present day.

The hostess still welcomes and treats guests, men occasionally prefer male celebrations, hosts maintain the peaceful and friendly atmosphere at the table and take care for guests who need help to get home. The refusal to take some food or drinks is no longer taken with offence and Russian hosts are usually understandable to different eating habits. Even though the holidays have reshaped in Russia in terms of the quantity of guests, abundance of food and duration, preferred format is “at home” event. Taking friends or family to the restaurant is considered expensive and a waste of money. Zastolie is still bound to the table and can last several hours. It always takes place at home and is arranged at the big table in the living room. The guests are expected to appear nicely dressed and usually hand over gifts to the host. Unless zastolie is celebrated on a special occasion the gifts consist of alcohol or boxes of chocolate. Some rules are as follows: not to begin eating before the ceremony of the 1st toast is completed, not to ask about the ingredients of the dish one is tasting or express dissatisfaction with it, not to take items with one’s hands, not to serve oneself before serving a neighbor.

Saying toasts has it rules. The first toast is usually in honor of the holiday (birthday person, holiday). The second toast is usually for the host. At birthday and wedding dinners the third toast is for the parents of the birthday person or newlyweds. The toasts for love and for those at sea in the places connected with sea works or service are essential. Compliments to the hostess are a must. After the third toast, anything goes. At birthday and wedding dinners, everyone must take their turn to toast the birthday person.

Zastolie meal is divided into 2 courses: main course and dessert. Hot dishes follow the cold ones and appetizers. Meals and conversation can last for hours and the quests are encouraged to eat and maintain the jolly atmosphere. People occasionally leave their seats during zastolie, just for using a restroom or a cigarette break. At the end the guests should express the gratitude to the hosts and assure the event was great. Invitations to pay a visit back usually follow.

Russian travel-related and departure traditions

The departure was approached as unusual and even critical situation in Russian cultural tradition. This explains the number departure and travel-associated rituals. Right before leaving on a long trip, Russians sit down for a few seconds and say: “Присядем на дорожку” (Let’s sit down before the trip). In the old days, people sat down and prayed for their journey to be a safe one. Nowadays, the praying part somehow has disappeared, but the tradition of sitting down remains. Some people have found a practical aspect to this tradition: to make sure one more time that they haven’t forgotten to pack an important item.

It is still habitual that departing guests must drink one last shot for good luck. A so called drink “na pososhok” originates from the traditional Russian attitude to the pilgrims. They travelled from a village to village with walking stick, known in Russian as a "posoh". Leaving their temporary homes the pilgrims took a stop by the doorway. A host treated the leaving stranger with a drink and wished a good luck along the way. At times a glass of vodka was placed in that hole at the top of posokh. If it was steady and did not fall down this was god sign. The departing person had to drink a glass to the bottom. A few remaining drops were sprinkled over the shoulder to “smooth” the road. Drinking a departure glass is very characteristic of Russian zastolie.

Russian military traditions

Russian military traditions were formed along the centuries of Russian history; a lot depended on the political model of country and were much influenced by the legendary Russian commanders. The basis precept of the Russian military means that a Russian solder is not a contractor. He cannot be hired but serves the Russian state and its head as well as the nation in total. A soldier is best of the nation men selected to defend the country. Traditionally the military service was not separated from the politics of Russia and Russian Orthodox Church. The church patriarchs were invited to take part in discussing the government affairs.

Unity was characteristic for Russian military ethic. Russian soldiers were on service of the entire country – the Russian land.

Russian defense wars always involved a mass participation of the civilian population and the peasantry and had a nationwide importance. Self devotion, sacrifice, spirituality, high emotionality and assertiveness were the inborn features of a Russian warrior. Continuity of Russian military traditions does not only bridge the legendary past of the country with its modern day history, but is also a tribute to Russia’s heroic events. Russian military parades are one of the forms of paying the tribute.

Assimilation and Tradition.

Russia is a vast country inhabited by various ethnic groups that maintain own traditions, rituals and lifestyle. Peoples of North Caucasus region like the Ingush, the Adygeis, the Chechen, the Ossetians, Dagestani, Siberia minor ethnic groups like the Buryats, Tuvinians, Yakuts, Evenks, Chukchis, as well as Russian Gypsies and Russian Tatars maintain their peculiar national traditions, culture, language and religion. They value their holidays and have national dresses and family models. They feel Russian as much as they want to and preserve their ancestry and unique cultural heritage.

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The language, cuisine, military and cultural traditions assimilate and result in many new words and notions in Russian language. Roma (Gypsy) traditions enriched Russian culture with famous Tsyganochka dance and Gypsy romances. Russian cooking traditions were modified by cuisines of other peoples and ethic groups. Original tatar shashlyk and balyk, Mongolian pelmeni and Varangian bliny are now the essential part of Russian cuisine. Russian Cossacks borrowed some of the military traditions of Tatar people. Caucasian toasting traditions influenced Russian zastolie.

More about Russian traditions

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