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Interesting Russian traditions

Old Russian customs observed in modern life - Russian traditions

Russian woman in a wedding dress

Russian traditions are common practices or customs observed by Russians. They have deep roots in Russian history and have a mixed background. Some can be traced to the pagan times, when the peoples of Rus had nature-centered faith and worshiped the natural forces and associated deities. Other traditions were inherited from Christian ceremonies like Orthodox Easter. A number of traditions developed as a mixture of Orthodox Cultural Traditions and pagan beliefs. Fine examples are Maslennitsa and Ivana Kupala. Originally pagan rituals they were later accepted into the Orthodox Christian calendar and are now a combination of Christian and pagan traditions.

Wedding traditions

One of the most interesting and unique are Russian wedding traditions. According to Russian tradition, the best time of year for a wedding is always in autumn. This is because it is the time when the harvest is picked in preparation for a long winter. Perhaps the most distinguishing aspect of a traditional Russian wedding is that it lasts for at least two days.

It's tradition for Russian grooms to accomplish a few tasks. The groom is coming to the bride's home with his closest friends and relatives. In Russian tradition, before a groom can marry his bride, the wedding party gathers and demands that he answers a series of questions about his beloved, simple as when her birthday is, or something more involved, like asking him to guess which baby photo is of his bride. Or pick the bride's kiss on the napkin with lipstick prints of the bride and her attendants on it. If he answers wrong, he might have to fork over cash or another sort of "ransom" like performing a song or dance or even some money and gifts. Everything is played out as a joke and both sides are mostly competing in the sense of humour.

Once the groom locates his bride, the couple heads to a civil ceremony accompanied by close family and friends, such as the wedding attendants, called witnesses. Civil wedding ceremony takes place in ZAGS - Zapis Aktov Grazhdanskogo Sostoyaniya, registry office in Russia and other ex-USSR countries, an organization that registers all marriages, births, and deaths - and is recognized by the state.

Russian round loaf traditional symbol of marriage

At the wedding reception, the husband and wife take a big loaf of bread and bite it at the same time, without the use of their hands. This tradition is a playful game, and whoever gets the larger piece, it is said that they will be the leader of their family.

Read more about the leadership and gender roles in modern Russian family - a family portrait in modern Russia.

A Russian tradition of "kidnapping" the bride during the wedding party can be a true challenge for a groom. The groom's friends will take advantage of the chaos that ensues as all the guests start to dance and "kidnap" the bride. They will then demand the groom pay a ransom for her return. The bride's friends also get in on the good natured fun by "stealing" the bride's shoes. Again the groom has to pay a ransom before her shoes are returned.

During the party a tamada or/and other guests toast to the newlywed couple, with cries of "Gorko!" ("Bitter") from the crowd followed by a kiss from the newlyweds. This tradition has a very long history. In the past, the bride would carry a tray filled with glasses of vodka for her guests. The guests would pay the bride for a drink and then yell "Gorko!" to confirm that the drink was in fact vodka and not water. After the drink the guest was entitled to a kiss from the bride. Although this tradition has been simplified, it is still the quintessential marking of a Russian wedding.

Russian wedding traditions adopt symbolic rituals from other countries and cultures. A relatively new custom of love locks stroke roots in Russian wedding tradition. When 2 people get married, they should go to a bridge over a river, put a padlock on that bridge, close it and then throw the keys to the river, meaning their relationship is "locked" forever!

A tradition of tossing the bridal bouquet adopted from the western cultures is now frequent at Russian weddings, especially in the cities.

Traditional Russian weddings used to be big, noisy and chaotic and lasted for 2 days. Relatives from other cities came to the wedding to congratulate the newlyweds. No rehearsals, bridesmaids or flower girls ever took place. Despite the stress and expenses Russian usually supported the idea that the bigger wedding was the more memorable it would be. The tradition has changed with the time. Big weddings for about 100+ guests are very rare and occur in well-off families or occasionally in the villages. Or alternatively as a kind of PR for Russian celebrities. Nowadays Russians tend to be more rational while planning a wedding party. It is often limited to a nice dinner reception with table and dancing for the family members and close friends. The newlyweds are often paying for pretty much everything themselves and therefore a big wedding is not what they can afford. Many emphasize that big weddings turn into shows for guests and lose their intimacy. More couples prefer to save up for a romantic travel to an exotic place or put a down payment on an apartment rather than invest into lavish weddings. A nice buffet after the registration is becoming more frequent. Scenic outdoor wedding in romantic and beautiful environment as well as themed wedding are coming into fashion in Russia.

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A beautiful Russian girl with a garland

Ivan Kupala Day

Ivan Kupala is an ancient Slavic Pagan holiday. Originated from the ancient Slavic pagan fertility rite it was later accepted into the Orthodox Christian calendar. It’s celebrated on the night of 6/7 July throughout former Kiev Rus which includes Belarus, Russia and Ukraine.

Kupalo, the God of summer fertility. In his honor people the youths would jump over the flames of bonfires. Girls would float wreaths of flowers often lit with candles on rivers and would attempt to gain foresight into their relationship fortunes from the flow patterns of the flowers on the river.

Men may attempt to capture the wreaths, in the hope of capturing the interest of the woman who floated the wreath. There is an ancient Kupala belief, that the eve of Ivan Kupala is the only time of the year when ferns bloom. Prosperity, luck, discernment and power would befall on whoever finds a fern flower. Therefore, on that night village folks would roam through the forests in search of magical herbs and especially the elusive fern flower. Traditionally, unmarried women, signified by their garlands on their hair, would be the first to enter the forests. They are followed by young men. Therefore, consequent to the quest in finding herbs and the fern flower may be the blooming of relationships between pairs of men and women within the forest.

Christianity brought new meaning to the holiday. Kupala got the name Ivan after the baptizing of Russia, when he was replaced by John the Baptist. His birthday is celebrated on 24 June as the Church still uses Old Style calendar. Present day Ivana Kupala celebrations take place in different areas or Russia, Ukraine and Belarus.

A Russian girl decorates a Christmas tree

Christmas traditions

Russian holidays have long traditions and celebration rituals that are often a mixture of pagan and Orthodox and traditions.

Christmas in the Orthodox Calendar is celebrated on the 7th of January. During the Soviet reign, religious celebrations were officially banned, so many people had to carry on celebrations in secret. With the fall of the Soviet Union, Christmas traditions are stronger than ever.

An old Russian tradition, whose roots are in the Orthodox faith, is the Christmas Eve fast and meal. Kutya (kutia), a type of porridge, is the primary dish for Christmas. It is very symbolic with its ingredients being various grains for hope and honey and poppy seed for happiness and peace. A Russian church service on the Christmas Eve is extremely long, lasting an average of around three to four hours into the wee hours of the morning. In addition, only pregnant women and older people are generally allowed to sit. Others must stand the entire duration.

Svyatki, Russian Christmastide follows the celebration of Christmas and lasts until January 19, the day Epiphany is celebrated. This two-week period is closely associated with pagan traditions of fortune telling, guessing games (gadanie), and carolling (kolyiadki).

Kolyada or koleda is original Slavic word for Christmas and is also a a name of Russian goddess is the personification of Time and the Winter Solstice.

Prior to Koliada (Christmas) young Russian girls gathered late at night during Christmas-tide telling each other's fortunes. Usually they tried to find out what was awaiting each of them next year: long journeys, good luck, wealth, adventure, marriage, etc. Fortune-telling by a hen (or a cock) was also a common practice. If a hen drinks water first - a husband will be a drunkard, pecks bread - a husband will be prosperous, pecks gold - a rich man, pecks coal - poor. Fortune-telling by mirrors was very popular as well. A candle was placed in front of a mirror on a table in a dark room. A girl would try to see her bridegroom through the candle.

After Russian Revolution in 1917 Christmas was banned throughout the country along with other religious celebrations. So celebrating New Year became a sort of "replacement" for it. New Year enjoys immense popularity in Russia and most of Post-Soviet countries. New Year celebration also has its own peculiar character. Christmas became openly observed in 1992 and traditional rituals were restored. Christmas holiday takes place on eve of 7th of January as before.

Epiphany traditions

Epiphany (Jesus Baptism Day) also preserves a few ancient traditions in Russia. This day is celebrated in 19th of January and the night before the main tradition is to go bathing in some natural source of water. So at this day usually the local rivers and lakes are full of the people wishing to commit this ritual, not minding the temperature of the air and of the water, which is usually just a half degree up the freezing point at this time of the year.

Also, many people in Russia believe that the water being picked up at Baptism Day has some sort of magic. It can be kept next 365 days without getting any smell or become rotten. So many collect the water at that night and keep it at home, drinking it from time to time during all the year.

Remembrance traditions in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus

Remembrance of the departed is the Slavic ritual that was modified by Orthodox traditions of Russian people. Outside the memorial church services that are conducted on the actual day of one’s demise, the 3rd, the 9th and the 40th days after death, remembrance Saturdays (also called parent Saturdays) and the second Tuesday after Easter is marked. It is called Radonitsa or the Day of Rejoicing (word radost, meaning "joy). The day is a general memorial for the departed and is observed in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus in present time. The Ukrainian name is Provody (provodit – see off), as well as Radovnytsya, Grobki or Didy.

On this day people go to cemeteries, relatives typically decorate and clean the grave, share a meal with other family members (that is, commemorate the dead) and leave some food and drink behind for the dead on the grave. Food and a glass of drink is laid on a plate for a deceased on the remembrance feast on parent Saturday as well. The annual feasts or just get-togethers in memory of the passed away also take place. The family and acquaintances are called to share the memories of the dead. It is customary to hand out treats – pies, biscuits, sweets, as alms for the departed, to encourage people pray for him as it is considered this would help him in the afterlife. Such commemorative practices are held on Parents’ Days, on Saturdays during Maslenitsa, during Lent, during Passion Week, the Saturday before Sviataia Troitsa ‘Holy Trinity’ (seven weeks after Easter), and on Saint Dmitry’s Day (first Saturday in November or Dzyady)

In Belarus Radunitsa (aka Radanitsa) and Dzyady tradition is similar. Unlike the spring Radunitsa, on Dziady the people did not go to the cemetery, but ritual family dinner for commemoration of the dead relatives took place at home. It was customary to go to banya before Dziady. A basket of clean water and venik (bunches of dried tree branches and leaves) was left for the dead. The tradition of autumn Dziady is preserved. The special ritual food is cooked for Dziady dinner - "kyccia" (fine barley porridge with berries).

In Russian tradition speaking badly about the deceived is not acceptable. The saying goes ”Say good about the dead or keep silent”.

More about Russian traditions


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