Celebrating Christmas in St Petersburg feels a little like entering a wintery, parallel universe. Instead of Father Christmas, Father Frost is the festive figurehead. Churches are topped with colourful domes instead of spires. Wintertime revellers go gliding on troika rides instead of one-horse open sleighs. Not to mention the most obvious point: Christmas isn’t even on 25th December.
But apart from taking its Christmas traditions from the Julian calendar, which places Russian Orthodox Christmas Day squarely on 7th January – Christmas in St Petersburg isn’t completely foreign. Russia’s chilly climate means you’re almost guaranteed a shin-deep snowfall. The St Petersburg Christmas markets serve up ice-skating alongside steaming mugs of mulled wine (or glintvein, as it’s called around these parts), and there’s surely no better place in the world to see a performance of The Nutcracker. So while you might be indulging in more Christmas blini than Christmas crackers, Christmas in St Petersburg will otherwise be the white, romantic getaway of your imaginings.
What the Bolshoi is to Moscow, so the Mariinsky is to St Petersburg. Known previously as the Kirov Ballet, the ballet company ranks among the foremost in the world – and you can bet that they take their performances of The Nutcracker pretty seriously (not least because the name “Tchaikovsky” earns you a fair amount of purchase in this city). In fact, it was in this very theatre that the Nutcracker had its world premiere in 1892; seeing the production in its birthplace will leave audiences as spellbound as if they were personally subject to the Sugar Plum Fairy’s enchantments. Suffice it to say that no romantic, Christmastime trip to St. Petersburg would be complete without attending a performance, preferably wrapped in furs – and with theatre binoculars, for those wishing to relieve the old-fashioned experience.
Essentially, visitors spending Christmas in St Petersburg should be sure to bundle up well – there’s much to do in the snow. For a trip back to the Christmastime of yore, travellers should don their finest fur ear muffs and cossack hats and make their way to Pavlovsk. Located just outside of the city, Pavlovsk is home to a former summertime, royal retreat. The palace’s ample grounds still host snowy troika rides, or traditional Russian carriages drawn by three-horse teams.
Ice skating is another fitting cold-weather pursuit – particularly if you chase it with a warming drink. Luckily, it’s possible to enjoy both at the St Petersburg Christmas Market, which is held each year in the Pionerskaya Square, near Pushkinskaya metro station. Though the city’s canals and the Neva River don’t always freeze solidly enough to skate on, the temporary rink here allows for gliding under the snowfall. Afterwards, the market – which consists of roughly 70 stalls – will help skaters thaw out.
On days when Jack Frost does more than just nip at your nose, it’s time to plan some indoor pursuits. No setting will immerse visitors in old-fashioned, Russian romanticism more than the pastel-hued Hermitage Museum: a temple of gilded, imperial splendours that looks particularly fitting when frosted with a layer of snow. Those looking to attend a traditional, Russian Orthodox Christmas mass can also do so from within the confines of the city’s historic churches. The monumental Kazan Cathedral hosts a popular service, complete with all the customary rituals.
Murder, intrigue, crime and punishment… St Petersburg has it all. Those fascinated by the more ghoulish side of history will love these significant spots from fiction, and real life.