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History of Christmas: Day 7 – Sviatki (1300 CE) December 20, 2012

Posted by Yarnspnr in History of Christmas.
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The History of Christmas
Day 7: Sviatki- 1300 CE


If you’d like to know what it would be like to live through a REAL War on Christmas, go to Russia and ask them about not being able to celebrate holidays in any shape or form – other than the official way. I personally don’t think saying “Happy Holiday” instead of “Merry Christmas” because you might be speaking to someone who isn’t Christian is, by definition, a War on Christmas. In fact, I doubt it changes the way anyone here celebrates the holiday. But, I’m not here to speak to that. I’m here to bring you the traditional Russian Sviatki – their celebration of the Winter Harvest.

Through the ages, the peoples of Eastern Europe celebrated Sviatki on January seventh, as a day of rituals and divination to bring good health and good fortune to the family and guard against evil spirits and misfortune. Celebration of Sviatki opened with the children of the family sighting the first star of the night.  Then the elder of the household offered kut’ia to the family’s deceased ancestors. With the table strewn with hay, the elder then shared the kolach. The twelve dishes served during the celebration had both magical and religious significance. The menu differed according to region and had no set order to its presentation.

There were numerous other rituals and even a session of divination for the young girls to tell whom they would marry.


The small village of Filina in the Russian Ukraine looked forward to the celebration of Sviatki, especially young Raya, her sister Miroslava, and their friends, Fedot, Pyotr, and Galya. This group of young teens stood outside a townhouse, searching the sky as snow gently fell upon their upturned faces.

“It’s too light yet to see a star,” grumbled Raya, more interested in the festivities to come rather than locating the first star.

“Hush, Raya. You should feel privileged to be out here with the older children. Last year you complained about having to help mother make the kut’ia,” said Miroslava.

“Well, I’m looking forward to caroling this year. I’ve spent the last month learning the favorites and I’m sure it will be fun,” Pyotr blurted out.

“You and Fedot have good voices Pyotr. Of course you would look forward to showing them off singing Kolyadki,” said Galya.

“Look! There it is! Do you see!”

All eyes followed to where Fedot pointed. Above the trees, to the west, a small glimmer of shining light had indeed fought the evening sky to appear. The children all shouted in glee and rushed inside to tell the elders to start the festivities.

Vadim, the clan elder, rose from his seat as the families gathered around the table. “As you know, Anisim, Osip and Tekla are no longer with us. I would like to recite a short prayer in their memory.”

At the end of his prayer, Vadim signaled to his wife, Anushka, who led the serving women with the kut’ia – a light, tasty flummery of honey, wheat kernels and poppy seed. A few minutes later, Vadim stood again.

“I am told the kolach this year is exceptionally good.” Servers followed him around the large table as he placed small loaves of the rich egg bread along with honey and salt in front of each resident. “If there is any kolach left over, please place it in the basket in the center of the table so I can take it out to the barn later to ask a blessing on our livestock.”

As the night progressed, the women served up twelve dishes during the feast. Roasted pig and duck proved popular. They enjoyed vushka, pies with meaty fillings. Also piroshki, a sort of dumpling filled with mushrooms, followed by buckwheat pancakes, marinated fish, cabbage, beet soup, and sausage found their way to the straw strewn table. But the children looked forward to sweets such as pashka, a cheesecake; and nuts, doughnuts, and dried fruit that capped the meal.

The adults drank their fill of horilka or vodka. Some of the women took their pleasure in teas, with cloves, lemon, cinnamon, and orange. The talk at the table, as it did earlier with the children outside, was about the mumming that would take place over the next twelve days. The young folk, especially, looked forward to dressing up in clownish costumes and racing through the streets of Filina, caroling, playing games, building lady Kolyada (a snow woman with a carrot nose, prune eyes, and string bean teeth), and playing all sorts of games. At night they would go into a dark room with balls of paper which they set on fire. They then held candles up to the burning balls so the images would reflect off the walls. The rest of the children would guess what the images were.

The adults visited their neighbors and all enjoyed the prognostications of who would marry whom in the year to come. There was much dancing, merriment and gift giving. This is followed by the telling of fairy tales, fortunes, and scary tales.


Like the Saturnalia, Sviatki became Christianized after the Russian Orthodox Church rose to power. During the Communist time, no celebrations of any kind were allowed. But today, the old customs have been rekindled. People love to celebrate and most of them don’t care about the history of their celebrations. What’s important is that they are ABLE to celebrate, something which Russians today fully appreciate.

Mumming and caroling made its way to England and then to America. Our celebration of Christmas is in debt to our Russian friends.