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Custom and Tradition

Custom and Tradition

When Russians die and are awaiting burial, their corpse lies in an open coffin in church. An English actress on a guest visit to the Moscow Arts Theatre found that one of the actors had died the night before the performance in which she and he were to take part. His corpse lay in state at the theatre during the morning, to enable his fellow-actors to take their solemn leave before it was removed for the family burial service. One by one, they went to kiss him goodbye on the dais, with his widow sitting beside him.

Forty days after a person has died, Russians celebrate the passing of their soul into paradise with a service and meal called "pominki".

Easter is not a national holiday, but to the Russians it is the most important festival in the church calendar, because it marks the rising of Jesus from the dead. On Easter Eve there is a church service when everyone processes round the outside of the church with lighted candles. At midnight and during Easter Day and afterwards everyone greets each other with the words "Khristos Voskrese" (Christ Is Risen) in the same way others say "Happy Christmas". The reply is: "Vo istinu voskres" (He is risen indeed). When Brezhnev was increasingly incapacitated this story circulated: he was greeted in the tradition manner on Easter Day in the corridor of the Kremlin. Instead of the conventional reply, he grunted "Thank you". Minutes later, another functionary said to him politely, "Khristos Voskrese". "Yes, I know," replied Brehnev grumpily, "they've already told me."

At Eastertime, the Russians eat special food after it has been blessed in church: paskha, a sweet pudding made with eggs, sour milk and raisins in a tall rectangular wooden mould, the top patterned with the Orthodox cross and turned out like a blancmange, and koulitch, a sort of cake. Eggs - the symbol of the cycle of life - are coloured by being boiled in onion water for a traditional ochre, or with coloured paper to make them pink, blue, etc. Beautifully hand-decorated wooden eggs are widely sold in Russia at all times of the year.

The biggest national celebrations are held on New Year's Eve. Flats are decorated with Christmas trees, and Grandfather Frost (Ded Moroz, a white-bearded figure suspiciously like Father Christmas) with his assistant, the Snow Maiden, gives out presents to the children. Everyone has a party, and gathers round the television to see the Kremlin clock striking midnight, or they go to Red Square if in Moscow. It is the custom between adults to give a little gift - a decorated wooden box, perhaps, with the year marked inside. It has become smart to offer a gift representing the Chinese animal associated with the year ahead (a dog, a monkey, a rooster).

At a New Year party, don't raise your glass too soon as the clock strikes. For Russians, the magic moment comes with the twelfth "bong".

Name-days

The Russians celebrate their Name-day as well as their birthday. Every day on Russian television the list of saints whose day it is, is read out - Sergei, Anna, Agafiya, Vyacheslav, etc. On your name-day you get little presents such as chocolates or a bunch of flowers and you may have a party. The proper greeting is: "S imeninami" (Happy Name-day!).

In Russia a certain number of flowers is given, depending on whether it is a happy or sad occasion. It is customary to give an even number for a death, and an odd number on a joyful occasion. Flowers are given a great deal, for instance when welcoming people at an airport. When flowers are very expensive and the greeters are hard-pressed, the three tired carnations offered may well be on their third or even fourth time round, having been salvaged from a hotel bedroom as an honoured guest moves on.

About every two weeks there are other Days such as Rangers' Day, Marines' Day and so on. On these days, rangers and marines or whoever, gather and get extremely drunk and begin to fight amongst themselves and throw bottles at passers-by.

Russians like to celebrate the anniversaries of births and deaths of famous people. Not satisfied with marking the major milestones - the round centuries, or at least fifties - they have been known to throw themselves into 43rd anniversaries, or 167th as the case may be. Do not be fooled by anyone who tries to tell you that Russia is a "young country". It's just that their concept of time is different. They talk about the victory over the Tatars in 1380 as if it were yesterday, and mutter about "another Time of Troubles" (smutnoe vremya) - which is as if an Englishman started talking about "the Viking threat".

It is an old-fashioned custom to "wet" (obmyt), in other words to toast, a major new household purchase or even the award of a medal. In military circles, medals were dropped into a glass of vodka or champagne and the owner drank from the glass before removing the decoration and putting it on.

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