The time between Christmas and Epiphany, from January 8th to 19th, is called святками (Yuletide). Traditionally in ancient Russia, it was the most diverting time of the year. Description of the Christmas holidays can be found in many old Russian literary works: “It’s Yuletide … an enthusiastic Peter ran in the room … with the news that Yuletide has arrived”, can we read in Tolstoy’s novel “War and Peace”.
Ряженые (carnival), when people are wearing funny costumes and masks, brought with it a merry time, songs, dances and Christmas games, and in the end “they all went out into the cold, talking, calling, laughing, screaming, and sat in the sleigh.”
The folk theatre is playing an important role during the Christmas holidays. Representations are held in squares, in markets, at home. They could be comic or serious, representing scenes from the Bible related to the birth of Christ. The most popular one were puppet theatres. Puppeteers carried a wooden box with them through the streets, which they could change to a scene. It is called вертеп (it is a den or haunt but also the name of puppet show booth.)
There is another tradition of Christmas holidays described in Gogol’s novel “The Night before Xmas”: “Колядовать у нас называется петь под окнами накануне Рождества песни, которые называются колядками. Тому, кто колядует, всегда кинет в мешок хозяйка, или хозяин… колбасу, или хлеб, или медный грош, чем кто богат… Поют часто про рождество Христа; а при конце желают здоровья хозяину, хозяйке, детям и всему дому.” (We have something called Kolyadovat, when we sing carols under other people’s windows on Christmas Eve. The one who sings carols always receives from the masters of the house a bag with … sausages, or bread, or small change from the rich ones … They sing about the birth of Christ; and at the end wish good health to the host and the hostess, to the children and all the household.)
According to popular belief, нечистая сила (evil spirits) — черти и ведьмы (demons and witches) are especially active on Christmas Eve. It was appropriate to tell fortunes at this time. It was especially popular to tell fortunes to girls. They wanted to know the name of their суженый (promised) – future husband. These scenes of fortune telling have often been described in literature. There were many methods of divination.
Natasha Rostov, the heroine of the novel “War and Peace”, asked her maid to bring a rooster for the telling of her fortune. For this divination, girls put their rings in a dish, covered it to the top with grains and fed the cock with it. The girl who will see her ring appears first on top of the dish will marry first. In the same novel, there is also a scene where Natasha and Sonya try to read their future with a candle lighted in front of a mirror. And the heroine of the poet V.A. Zhukovsky “took of her slipper from her foot at the entrance gate”. In this case, the toe of the shoe is pointing towards the direction from which her future husband will come.”
Over the years, when in the public state policy was lying the atheist propaganda, some of the words associated with the Christian traditions have acquired a negative value. For example, the word “ряженые” (carnival) is sometimes used to mean “unnatural, overly ornate” or “hide their real essence”. And the word “вертеп” (den) to determine a tasteless, primitive action.