For today’s Russians, January and February are mostly a time to rest up after the hectic New Year’s holidays, although for schoolchildren, the first two months of the year represent the beginning of the long, seemingly endless third quarter; for sanitation workers in large cities, it is all about the torturous and for some reason perpetually losing battle with snowdrifts and icicles; for lovers of collective celebrations, focus is on preparations for the day that used to be called Soviet Army Day, later officially renamed Defenders of the Fatherland Day, but thought of by most people simply as “Men’s Day,” when in offices and schools, daycare centers and factories, boys and men of all ages are given presents.
But what did Russians experience during these months in bygone days? Let’s start with the fact that January 1 only became a major holiday under Peter the Great. New Year’s may not have been observed in January before Peter, but for centuries Russians had been celebrating the post-Christmas period, Svyatki: a fun-filled time from Christmas to Kreshcheniye,* when people dressed up in costumes (mostly animal skins) and went caroling from house to house, expecting tasty treats, and young women would engage in after-dark fortune telling. Also on Kreshcheniye, despite it usually being one of the coldest days of the year, people plunged into ice holes, believing that the Holy Spirit permeates the water on that frigid day.
Of course, Rus adopted Christianity only in the late tenth century (988 is the date cited). So what went on in January and February before that?
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