Christmas in Russia: Feasting and Fasting in Old Russia
Religious observances surrounding Christmas also flourished in Old Russia. These observances began with a fast that started 39 days before Christmas. Those who participated abstained from eating meat, dairy products, and eggs during this period. On December 24 some refrained from eating anything at all until the first star appeared in the sky, signaling the arrival of Christmas Eve. Then they enjoyed a twelve-course dinner. The twelve courses represented the Twelve Days of Christmas. The main course was usually fish instead of meat. Other traditional dishes included a kissel (a kind of berry pudding), borsch (beet soup), and kutya, a dessert made of boiled wheat berries, poppy seeds, and honey. A number of superstitious customs surrounded this dessert. Peasant families used to save a spoonful of kutya to throw at the ceiling. If the grains stuck to the ceiling, it signaled a good harvest to come. Many people also attended a lengthy church service on Christmas Eve.
The Advent fast finally ended on Christmas Day. People celebrated the end of the fast and the arrival of Christmas Day by feasting on roast meats, such as goose, ham, and duck. Roast suckling pig and pig’s head were favorite Christmas dishes (see also Boar’s Head). Other popular Christmas dinner dishes included piroshki (meat-stuffed pastries), pelmeni (beef and pork dumplings), and blini (thin buckwheat pancakes filled with caviar and sour cream). People washed down these heavy dishes with tea and vodka. In addition, many people attended special religious services on Christmas Day. The devout might attend special services held on each of the Twelve Days of Christmas.