Most Christmas traditions familiar to Americans, like Christmas trees, gifts, and Santa Claus, happen at New Year's in Russia. The main tradition associated with Orthodox Christmas seems to be a form of mock-begging in which children go from door to door on Christmas Eve with a bowl of кутья/kut'ya, a wheat-based porridge with chocolate, fruit juice, nuts, raisins, and various other sweet stuff thrown in. They offer the master and mistress of each house a taste of the porridge, and in exchange they're given candy, money, or some other treat. This is supposed to bring good fortune to the house for the next year. Not surprising that this is the kind of tradition that weathered the Soviet era, I guess, since it seems innocuous and non-religious enough to have not been seriously frowned upon.
Anyway, I knew about this, at least peripherally, but somehow I didn't think to buy candy so I'd be ready when kids came to my door. So it caught me off guard last night when the doorbell rang as I was sitting in my kitchen knitting with the oven turned on for warmth. I opened the door to a group of little boys, who shouted some kind of incomprehensible verse at me.
"Excuse me?" I said, probably looking as baffled as I felt.
[Incomprehensible verse!] they shouted again. (I think it's something like "The carolers have come, open the gates!," but you sure couldn't tell from the cacophony of prepubescent voices.)
"Oh." I stammered. "Ah. I see. This is your Christmas, right? The thing is, I'm a foreigner, I didn't know..."
"Will you try our porridge?" interrupted the oldest boy (thankfully, before I crashed and burned too badly).
"Umm... sure. Ok. Yeah, hang on," I said, feeling pretty sure that that's not what you're supposed to say, and went to fetch a spoon. I got the spoon, and then proceeded to spill the porridge awkwardly all over my sleeve and the floor as I pried off the Tupperware lid. I declared it delicious, and then continued to stumble through the encounter:
"Ok, so, now I'm supposed to give you something, right? See, I didn't know... I mean, I didn't buy any candy. But if you'll just wait one more second..."
"Oh, uh, that's ok, we understand," the oldest boy cut in, probably plotting the group's escape from this babbling person in her porridgy sweater, but I had already wandered off to retrieve some quarters from the depths of my suitcase: "Ok, so, the thing is, I'm American, right? So here are some American coins. They're for you. Thank you. Merry Christmas. Thank you. Goodbye."
Christmas only got better from there: I was prepared for the next two groups of kids who came by, and when my supply of quarters ran out I went over to a student's house. We took some kut'ya to her godmother, where we were rewarded with 100 rubles each (about $4 – score!) and a sack of candy. We used the money to buy wine (although I vetoed the idea of drinking it on the street) and proceeded to one of her friend's houses. Another Christmas tradition is apparently that Christmas Eve is the best night of the whole year for fortune telling, so this friend's mom told our fortunes over wine, cake, and more kut'ya.
I'm fairly sure that neither of these traditions is exclusively Russian. The going door-to-door can be found in various cultures, I think, including medieval Europe (which is probably where it comes from). As for the fortune-telling, isn't there an Alexander Pope poem about that? It's not Christmas, but some saint's day in early January (which would coincide with Orthodox Christmas, anyway) when maidens are supposed to dream of their future husbands. Maybe it's not Alexander Pope. Whatever. (Edit: try John Keats, Leslie. "The Eve of St. Agnes.")
Anyway, my fortune was neither great nor bad. I'm supposed to lose my passport or big money sometime in March or April, which makes me wonder if this woman somehow knows me – it seems like not a year goes by where I don't lose a relatively large sum of money. (That $50 from this past summer? I still maintain that TSA stole it out of my suitcase.) On the bright(?) side, she gave me advice about grad school (both of my top choices are good) and husbands (look for a Russian one, not an American).
So that was all yesterday (Christmas Eve), and then today I had a massive Christmas dinner with one of the guards from the university and his wife. Our university, like many institutions in Russia, employs men to sit by the door and check your ID as you walk in, so as to keep out the riff-raff. One of these guys is a retiree whose son and daughter-in-law are in the U.S. doing PhD work at... Bowling Green State University! (That's really close to my hometown, for those not in the know.) I took them a big package of Russian stuff from their parents when I went home for "Catholic" Christmas, and in return their parents invited me over for Orthodox Christmas!
The parents are really, really kind (they both call me заенка, a Russian pet name that translates as "bunny"). We had a nice dinner, drank some champagne, sang some Ukrainian folk songs, and they sent me home with pounds and pounds of preserves from their garden – raspberry jam, pickled tomatoes and zucchini, salted cucumbers – and a big ol' slice of liver pie. (Sad but true: most Russian party food seems to be stuff I don’t really like, such as liver pie, fish (fried, baked, stuffed, chopped up in salads, salted, pickled), meat jello, and salads made with entire jars of mayonnaise. But I've made it through the big holidays without offending any hosts – I even ate two slices of liver pie today! – and at least now I have the preserves to look forward to.)