Russian Holiday Foods
Russian cuisine is closely tied with feasts. During feasts, whole families would gather at one table, where each member had his or her own place. In some places, spots at the table were even reserved for dead people: they had their own place setting, and they were served food and drinks.
Russian holidays were associated with celebrations and abundance. Tables were set with appetizers, salads, drinks, main dishes, and desserts. Hosts always tried to feed their guests until they couldn’t eat any more, and refusing food was seen as disrespect towards the host.
The types of dishes depended on the time of year and the region, as well as on the holiday. Let’s cover the main Russian holidays and what was eaten for them.
There were 12 dishes traditionally served for Christmas - one for each of the 12 days between Christmas and the Baptism of the Lord.
On the night before Christmas, Russians would eat according to fasts (there were two main types of Russian foods: those for fasts and those for the rest of the time). The two main dishes for Christmas Eve were vzvar (made of boiled nuts, raisins, and honey) and kutia (a sweet porridge with nuts, raisins and honey). The sweeter and richer the kutia was, then the bigger the harvest would be for the coming year. Other traditional dishes would also be made for Christmas celebrations, including blini for fasts (thin pancakes without milk or butter), vinaigrette (a salad), vegetable pierogies, and more.
The arrival of Christmas marked the end of a fast, and people would start eating normal foods again. Meat pierogies, fish, and sweet dishes were definitely made, along with pork and poultry dishes. The most common poultry dish was goose, which was stuffed with different fillings and baked whole. Porridges and horseradish were also common, alongside ham hocks cooked with vegetables and spices, or ham made into salo or aspic.
Desserts were also quite common at this Russian holiday. Sweet pierogies, souffles, and jams were all an opportunity for a housewife to show off her skills after a long fast.
Before Great Lent, Russians celebrated their brightest holiday, Maslenitsa. This holiday served as the transition from winter to spring, and was widely celebrated both in villages and cities. The Sunday before the week-long celebration was Meat Sunday, or the last day meat was allowed before fasting began. Lots of meat dishes were cooked, and people would visit their families and neighbors for meals.
Maslenitsa marks the last week before eggs and dairy products were banned for Great Lent, so cheese and blini (made from butter, eggs and milk, plus flour, salt, and sugar). The first pancake made on Maslenitsa was thrown out the window, to feed the spirits of ancestors, or was given to nishchie, who were spirits caught between life and death.
Since meat wasn’t allowed because of the fast, most of the foods during Maslenitsa were made from flour. Syrniki (cheese pancakes), eggs, sour cream, tvorog (farmer cheese), fish pierogies, angel wings, and cabbage pierogies were also common dishes.
After Great Lent came Easter. On Easter, anyone could visit anyone else, so housewives tried to cook so much that their tables broke under all the food. Dishes from meat, cookies, appetizers, desserts, pierogies, and drinks were all laid out for anyone who wanted. Many hot dishes weren’t included in Easter spreads, so that the host didn’t have to spend lots of time waiting on guests, and fish dishes also weren’t included.
There were three main dishes that had to be on a Russian Easter table.
- Kulich is a rich cake that’s baked vertically. It symbolizes the bread that Jesus ate with the Disciples after His resurrection. Kulichs were baked on Friday, and then on Saturday, they were blessed together with eggs in churches. A properly baked kulich could stay fresh for up to forty days.
- Paskha is a small pyramid that symbolizes the Calvary, which was made of tvorog (farmer cheese), eggs, sugar, cream, butter, candied fruits, raisins, and cinnamon, plus other things, if desired. Boiled paskhas had to keep their taste and freshness, but raw paskhas were easier to make.
- Dyed and decorated eggs (pysanky) are common around the world for Easter (eggs were a symbol of God), but Russians and Ukrainians take them to a new level. Eggs that were dyed evenly with only one color were called krashenky, while pysanky had designs drawn on in wax (sometimes in several layers to create designs in several colors). Now both natural and artificial dyes are used, but traditional eggs were dyed using a strong blend of onion skins.
The most traditional dish at a Russian wedding was korovai, a large loaf of decorated bread. It symbolized the happiness and growth of a new family, which is why it was given to newlyweds.
Typical wedding food involved lots of pierogies and pies. Pierogies would be brought at the beginning of the meal, and then again and again. The most important pie, the kurnik, was made of dough filled with chicken and wheat inside, which represented prosperity and fertility. The bride’s family made kurnik with floral patterns, while the groom’s family made kurnik with human figures.
The central decoration of the wedding feast was a goose with apples. Birds symbolized the connection between heaven and earth. The wide variety of meat and fish dishes told of the prosperity of the newlyweds, while in poor families, meats in fillings would be replaced with grains, mushrooms, and other additions. Alcoholic drinks were also common at Russian holidays, including beer, and honey and berry tinctures (vodka was only introduced much later).
The whole wedding celebration would last three days, and would involve the whole village. The newlyweds would visit the graves of ancestors to receive their blessings and to bring them pancakes.
Overall, Russian holidays were always filled with fun and merry. Tables were always filled with foods, decorations, and lots of guests. Many Russian holidays also included dances, songs, and other celebrations. Nowadays, most traditional holiday celebrations take place at festivals, where anyone can take part in the fun, try traditional Russian foods, and buy authentic souvenirs.