Snow-capped onion domes, troika rides, richly spiced glintwein; there are plenty of reasons to celebrate Christmas in St Petersburg. And that’s before you’ve even touched on its world-class museums, decadent dining and eclectic boutiques, perfect for some last minute Christmas shopping. From how to celebrate a Russian Orthodox Christmas to traditional food and drink, these are the Russian Christmas traditions to take note of on a festive trip to St Petersburg.
If you’re going to spend Christmas in St Petersburg, there’s one crucial thing you should know – it isn’t celebrated on 25th December. In Russia, as in many other Orthodox Christian countries, Christmas Day falls on 7th January, according to the Julian (rather than the Western Gregorian) calendar.
It’s also worth keeping in mind that Russian Christmas traditions are still something of a mixture of old and new. Back in 1917, the Soviets banned religious celebrations, directing the seasonal energies towards New Year’s Eve instead. Even today, many Russians consider New Year’s Eve the bigger seasonal celebration.
To channel the Russian Christmas spirit in St Petersburg, you could adhere to the traditional Russian Orthodox fast, which involves eating no meat or dairy for 40 days before Christmas. A shame when on holiday, but at least there’s an almighty feast to look forward to on Christmas Day. If seasonal fasting is not one of the Russian Christmas traditions you fancy experiencing, St Petersburg’s restaurants will have plenty of indulgent dishes to enjoy. From eccentric Russian fare such as “Lake Herring Under a Fur Coat” at Palkin (herring served with a potato foam and carrot sauce, topped with beetroot crisps) to an abundance of glintwein (Russian mulled wine) at the St Petersburg Christmas Market, there’s plenty of opportunity to indulge. Some other Russian foods that are traditionally eaten at Christmas include Kutia – a cooked porridge a little like rice pudding, served with poppy seeds, honey, nuts and dried or candied fruit – and Sauerkraut, often served with carrot and cranberries.
But for those looking to experience the most authentic Russian Christmas traditions, the Orthodox Church is still at the heart of the celebrations for many Russians. Traditional Russian Orthodox Christmas festivities take place on 7th January, with Christmas Mass and the breaking of the aforementioned fast being the two most important aspects of the day. St Petersburg’s grand Kazan Cathedral hosts a Russian Orthodox service on Christmas Day, which is always well attended. But for the less religiously inclined, a visit to the cathedral is still worth undertaking, if only to gaze up at the enormous Christmas tree outside.