Missing Christmas Already? In Russia, the Party Is Only Just Getting Started

If you are already feeling blue that Christmas is over or are looking for an excuse to gorge on another massive dinner, fear not. In some parts of the world, including Russia, the holiday is yet to come. In fact, you have around a week to address any Christmas cards to Moscow, Cairo and elsewhere.

The discrepancy between the Christmas celebrated in the U.S. and much of Western Europe on Dec. 25 stems from a huge split between the world's Christian churches dating back centuries. The incongruity centers around a mathematical sequence, stemming from the rule of Roman Emperor Julius Caesar himself.

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Sounding suspiciously like the premise for a lesser Dan Brown novel, the so-called Julian calendar could be one of the world's most impactful miscalculations. Named after the emperor who made it Rome's civic calendar, the old solar calendar is actually off by around 11 minutes 14 seconds according to the Encyclopedia Britannica.

In an attempt to amend the error Pope Gregory proposed an amended version in 1582, in what has come to be used for both religious and secular purposes by the U.S. and much of the world today. Those 11 minutes and 14 seconds may have seemed inconsequential but today they have compounded to push the Julian calendar 13 days out of step with the Gregorian calendar. This will increase to 14 days in 2100.

Some churches were quite reluctant to adopt the Vatican's new calendar however, and religious holidays in many countries that are not predominantly Catholic are still determined by the Julian calendar.

People watch festive decorations depicting the Moscow Kremlin for the New Year and Christmas season at Kievsky railway terminal Square in Moscow, Russia December 28, 2017. Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters

Russia will mark Christmas on Jan. 7, while Ukraine, which until recently aligned more closely with Russia's calendar, has officially moved to the Gregorian calendar but will also have the Julian date as a day off. A handful of Orthodox Churches around the world will also be keeping with the Julian calendar as well as other Christian denominations whose calendars use the old calculation. Belarus, Egypt, Ethiopia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Macedonia, Moldova, Montenegro, Serbia and some Christians in Israel mark Christmas next month. A handful of Orthodox countries such as Greece, Cyprus and Bulgaria adopted the new calendar in the early part of last century, so there is a schism in the dates among Orthodox denominations as well.

The Orthodox tradition usually involves a series of dishes dedicated to the apostles served on Christmas Eve, before a more lavish feast on Christmas itself. Christmas Eve dinner usually consists of food that contains no meat or dairy as a kind of fast. So far, the holiday may appear more solemn but it is in contrast with another date in Russia and other countries' festive calendars.

The real parallel for Western Christmas in Russia has little to do with the birth of Jesus. Many of the staples of Christmas, such as the practice of gift giving, the arrival of Santa Claus and the general crescendo of the winter festivities is New Year's Eve. Its significance is directly tied to the advent of Communism in Eastern Europe.

Following the October Revolution in 1917, the now Soviet Russian government morphed into an atheist state whose official philosophy could not contend with the country's biggest annual holiday being religious. The same went for Soviet republics that would one day be independent countries. Although all elements of religious life in the Soviet Union were not eradicated entirely, Christmas in the early days of the Bolshevik state was a non-entity. Slowly, the Communist Party acquiesced to reintroduce many beloved parts of Christmas but not as a holiday linked to the Church.

Nikolai Vasilyev, 64, dressed as Father Frost, the Russian equivalent of Santa Claus, water-skis along the Yenisei River outside the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk, Russia December 19, 2017. Vasilyev, former teacher of the Siberian State Aerospace University, constructed the water skis out of plastic foam and designed the sticks to propel him forward, while travelling on the water surface. Ilya Naymushin/Reuters

It was on New Year's Eve, Soviet children were told, when a white bearded old man would visit, bearing gifts for everyone. Russia's Santa Claus is called Ded Moroz (Old Man Frost) and although he resembles the Father Christmas of the Euro-atlantic yuletide lore in many ways, his image is colored by the traditions of Russia's own high north regions.

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He is often depicted in mittens and valenki boots and in Russia's Arctic regions there is even an officially recognized home where he is said to live—a cottage in Veliky Ustyug in the Vologodsky Region. In the place of Mrs. Claus, he has a much younger helper in the form of the the maiden Snegurochka. Her origins are a little unclear but children are often told she is the daughter of Ded Moroz. He also gets around on a troika, as opposed to a reindeer-pulled sleigh.

While the U.S. president or the Queen of Great Britain may give their annual speeches on Christmas, the Russian leader continues to address the nation on December 31. It has become such a staple of Russian television that social media network Odnoklassniki is releasing a selfie filter this year, allowing people to cast themselves as Putin with the Moscow Christmas tree and Kremlin walls behind them.