russia’s winter wonderland
Ready for A Taste of Russia at a time when locals celebrate Christmas, New Year, another Christmas, Old New Year and an Epiphany? Intrepid’s Anna Mikhailova explains why you should take this top trip in winter…
“In his novel The real life of Sebastian Knight, Nabokov, one of Russia’s finest authors, gave this description of a winter’s day in his home city:
“…the morning of 31st December was a fine windless one, with twelve degrees below zero. This dry account cannot convey to the untravelled reader the implied delights of a winter day such as this in St Petersburg; the pure luxury of a cloudless sky designed not to warm the flesh, but solely to please the eye, the soft curve of a cupola, its gold dimmed by the bloom of powdery frost; the birch trees in the public gardens, every tiniest twig outlined in white; the rasp and tinkle of winter traffic.”
One of the most widespread stereotypes about Russian winter is that it is cold and therefore something travellers should avoid; but the truth is actually quite opposite!
A cold Russian winter is a treat. Provided, of course, you arrive with some garments in your backpack other than just T-shirts and are willing to learn to drink vodka like locals do – without diluting it with cola or orange juice! Likewise, to follow locals in other winter delights – from cross-country skiing, ice-skating and going to banya (a kind of sauna in traditional Russian way) to participating in many winter celebrations.
The most important and widely celebrated holiday in Russia is New Year. This is a time of countless art events, concerts, performances of any sort. It is a time dedicated to joy and hope and everybody feels as if they are children again. With all foolish things children do – from skating at midnight to round-the-clock partying.
The next celebration is Orthodox Christmas on 7th January, with beautiful church services starting on Christmas Eve – it is the second most important (after Easter) Orthodox feast. The most spectacular part of the celebration is the ‘cross-bearing procession’, headed by prayer-singing priests carrying icons and crosses, followed by people with candles in their hands – a subject of numerous paintings by Russian artists of 19th century.
Only two weeks later, on 19th January, Russian Orthodox Church celebrates the Epiphany. Church services on that day are particularly interesting – if there is a lake or river beside a church, a cross-shaped ice hole is prepared and everybody gathers around witnessing the special prayer made by the priest who invocates the Holy Spirit to come and consecrate the water. This consecrated water then is taken to the church in big barrels so that afterwards everybody can pour some in the bottle and take home – it is used as a remedy for all sorts of diseases.
Afterwards the most intrepid go and bathe in the water – yes, in the ice hole! The common belief is that it is immensely good for your health. Even those who are not particularly devout Orthodox Christians do these things – some even go outside the city, prepare these ice holes themselves and have ice-hole bathing, so to say, in the wild.
The most curious festival is by no doubt ‘Old New Year’, which actually means ‘New Year on old-style Julian calendar’. This is celebrated on the eve of 13th January in a more private manner, usually with a family or closest friends. Before the revolution of 1917, Russia lived on Julian calendar which differs from the Gregorian by 13 days – so this ‘Old New Year’ was initially an attempt to keep to the good old times and then became just one more reason to have a party and meet friends.
That is to say – midwinter is very special time in Russia: lack of daylight is compensated by an abundance of snow that adds exquisite fascination even to the most banal of landscapes. Lying on the roofs and frames of dark-brown wooden houses and churches, it provides a paradise to a photographer: I really believe these unknown architects of old times had this transient snow-lace decoration in mind when they built their houses this way.
So the whole Christmas – New Year – another Christmas – Old New Year – Epiphany period is just a non-ending festival where everybody can find something interesting for themselves. From folk and sports events to grand church services, and from concerts and performances to art exhibitions and quiet tea-parties with long friendly talks, winter is a fantastic time to embrace the wonders of Russia.”
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* photo by Anna Mikhailova