Christmas in Russia: Christmas Customs in Old Russia
As far back as the Middle Ages Russians welcomed Christmas with the singing of kolyadki, or Christmas carols. Carolers worked their way through neighborhoods expecting to be given cookies or other sweets in return for their musical entertainment. Mumming is another old Russian Christmas custom. The famous Russian writer Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) included a passage describing Russian mumming customs in his novel War and Peace. Russian mummers favored dressing up as animals, especially as goats, horses, and bears. Beggar costumes were also popular.
Russian folklore warned that magical spirits and forces waxed powerful during the Christmas season. The Russian people, therefore, developed numerous folk charms to protect their homes, farms, and families from evil spirits or misfortunes. They also searched nature for omens of things to come. Folk tradition suggested that Christmas weather could predict the next year’s agricultural prospects. Starry skies meant one could expect a plentiful pea harvest, for example.
Many young women worked fortune-telling charms at Christmas time in the hopes of catching a glimpse of their future husbands. Many different spells existed. One encouraged young ladies to throw a boot of theirs into the street on Christmas Eve. The first young man to find the boot would be their future husband. Another custom suggested that unmarried women light a candle in front of a mirror at midnight on Christmas Eve. This charm was supposed to cause the face of their future husband to appear in the mirror.
Other popular Christmas season activities included eating and drinking with family and friends, and decorating Christmas trees. Most people made homemade ornaments out of fruit, nuts, foil, and carved wood. Finally, children in the cities eagerly awaited the Christmas Eve visit of Grandfather Frost, who brought gifts to well-behaved girls and boys.