Russian Christmas Traditions
Christmas in Russia has had a long and turbulent history.
For centuries, Russians observed Christmas in the traditions of the Eastern Orthodox Church, celebrating the holiday on January 7th instead of December 25th in accordance with the traditional Julian calendar. In the 11th century, the Prince Vladimir traveled to Constantinople and returned to Russia to tell stories of the miracles he saw performed by Saint Nicholas of Myra (the inspiration for the figure of St. Nicholas and later Santa Claus in many European traditions), after which St. Nicholas became a widely popular figure in Russian Christmas traditions.
After the Communist Revolution in 1917, however, religious celebrations were discouraged and sometimes banned by the officially atheist state, and Christmas traditions were either practiced in secret, or found new life in secular celebrations. St. Nicholas became Dyed Moroz, or “Grandfather Frost,” who traveled across Russia on New Year’s Eve with Snegurochka, “The Snow Maiden,” a character from Russian Fairy tales visiting children and placing presents under their newly renamed “New Year’s Trees.”
Since the fall of communism, Christmas has been revived in Russia, with many people returning to the Eastern Orthodox Churchto celebrate it as a religious holiday and with many traditional Christmas characters returning to popularity.
One of those figures is Baboushka, or “Grandmother,” whose story goes like this:
Many years ago on a stormy winter’s night, old Babouska was tending the fire in her hearth when three traveling men arrived at her door and asked for refuge from the blizzard.
Baboushka invited them in, made them warm and comfortable, and fed them what food she had. She asked the men why they were traveling in such a cold and stormy night. They replied that they were searching for a baby prince, but that the star that was guiding them was hidden by the snowstorm. They told her that the bright and radiant new star was the sign of a holy child’s birth, and they were going to bring him great gifts and bow down before him; they invited her to join them in their search.
Baboushka replied that she would much like to see the child, but she was too old to travel far and besides, she had no gifts to give a newborn prince.The three men soon after set out once again, for the storm had cleared and they could see the star once more.
All at once, Baboushka was filled with a terrible sense of loneliness, and knew that she must go after the men and travel with them to find the babe. She hurried to gather what she needed into a sack and started off into the hills. She asked after the travelers, and the holy babe, and tried to recognize the special star in the night sky, but to no avail. She never caught the wise men, nor did she find the holy child, but to this day she wanders the Earth giving what little gifts she can to the children she meets along the way.
Russian honey cakes are a
common treat at teatime, but they’re especially loved as Christmas sweets.
- 3 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
- 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
- 1/2 teaspoon allspice
- 1/8 teaspoon salt
- 2 large egg yolks
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- 1 cup granulated sugar
- 1 cup honey
- 1/2 cup confectioners' sugar
In a medium bowl, sift together flour, baking soda, cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg, allspice and salt.
In a separate large bowl, beat with an electric mixer at high speed the egg yolks and sugar until they are pale yellow and thick.
Heat the honey in a small saucepan over low heat until it liquifies. Cool slightly so the heat doesn't scramble the eggs.
Stir the melted honey and the vanilla into the beaten egg mixture.
Mix in the dry ingredients to form a stiff dough. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 1 hour.
Heat oven to 350 degrees.
Place parchment paper the size of your cookie sheets on a clean surface. Using a cookie scoop, portion out mounds of dough on the prepared cookie sheets leaving 1 inch between cookie. They will flatten out somewhat but still retain a domed shape. Alternatively, roll out a portion of the dough directly onto the pachment paper.
Use your favorite cookie cutter shape or, more traditionally, a round 1 1/2-inch cutter. Cut rounds of dough spacing 1 inch between. Pick up scraps of dough and repeat with remainder of dough on another lined cookie sheet.
Lightly brush the tops of each cookie with honey.
Bake for 10-20 minutes, or until just golden, rotating the sheets halfway through for even baking.
Cool on the sheets until the cookies firm slightly.
Transfer to racks to finish cooling.
In a bowl, add the confectioners’ sugar and enough water (1 to 2 tablespoons) and whisk together to form a thin icing.
Spread on cooled cookies with a pastry brush.