Christmas and New Year in Belarus

Remember in your childhood you receiving about getting a present from Santa Claus? Perhaps, you still do? Then you should definitely come to Belarus, the country, where people celebrate not just one, but two Christmases!

How is it possible?

Today most of the world lives according to the Gregorian calendar. The Orthodox Church, however, still adheres to the old, Julian calendar. This is why all holidays are celebrated with the 13-day delay.

Most of Belarusians are Orthodox Christians, but the share of Roman Catholics and Protestants is also very significant. That is why major religious holidays like Christmas and Easter are marked as non-working days in the official calendar. People are free to choose which one they want to celebrate.

In Belarus, the ritual of Christmas is therefore closely tied with the folk holiday of Kalyady, with people not only going to church, but also observing rituals of pagan origin, with both traditions fused into a single fest. In the present Belarusian language the word Kaliady describes the whole period of Christmas celebrations. It originates from the Latin word Calendae – the name of the first day of each month in the Ancient Rome. Belarusian Kaliady is a folk holiday, which has its roots in the pre-christian time. It is connected with the winter solstice, when the day begins to grow longer, and the year turns toward the summer. As Christianity became the main religion on Belarusian territories, Kaliady were timed to the holidays of Christmas and Epiphany.

The main idea of Kalyady ritual of the pre-Christian time was to precipitate the spring and ensure the rich harvest through certain rituals. In every family, three “Kutsia” (sacral suppers) should be served during Kalyady.

The first one, Lenten (or Great) Kutsia is celebrated on the evening before Christmas. The table is full of Lenten dishes – herrings, all kinds of pancakes, fish and mushrooms, oatmeal kisel (a dessert made of fruit, berries and potato starch and sometimes served with milk). There is straw beneath the tablecloth. Each family member picks straws in order to determine, who will be the most long-living. The dish served last is Kutsia itself – porridge with honey, poppy seeds, nuts and raisins. The master of the house is the first one to try Kutsia. A spoon of this traditional porridge is always being placed on a separate plate outside the house for the night. In the ancient times it was the offering to Zuzia, the god of winter.

Kalyadavanne is one of the most characteristic Christmas traditions in Belarus. Groups of dressed-up people wander from house to house, singing Kaliady songs – “kaliadki” and “shchadrouki”. The most characteristic personage of this performance is “Kaza”(goat), the person dressed and masked like a goat. The master of the house visited during Kalyadavanne is supposed to treat the group with sausage, snacks, and sweets. 

The Rich (also known as Fat, Generous) Kutsia is served on the New Year’s Eve. During this evening one finds on the table Kustia porridge with butter and fried bacon, as well as various meat dishes.

Another Lenten (also called Hungry) Kutsia is served right before Epiphany that is why it is sometimes called Water Kutsia.

Kaliady are also used for telling fortunes, especially by young unmarried women, eager. The fortune telling is done in all kinds of ways. Here are some of them:

On the first day of Kaliady, in the morning or in the evening, a young girl goes to a crossroad, taking a piece of a pancake or a bit of “Kutsia” porridge with her and listens from which direction dogs will be barking. Her future husband should take her away from home in the same direction.

Young men and women go outside and hug a fence, reaching with their hands as wide as they can. If the number of the hugged poles is even, that means that they will be in a couple next year.

A married woman hides some items for example a piece of bread, a ring, a brush, a needle, and other small things and asks her girlfriends to come one after another and find the items. The one who finds bread will have a rich husband; a ring promises a handsome husband, the brush will bring a bad-tempered one, the needle means her future husband would be a tailor.

Of course, with many Belarusians living in large cities, it is becoming quite difficult to observe these rituals. But urbanization is not the only reason why Christmas traditions are not preserved by most Belarusian families. During the Soviet times all holidays connected with religion were fiercely eradicated. Churchgoing as well as Kaliady rituals were strictly forbidden – especially for the younger generation. Owing to the efforts of Soviet ideologists, Christmas was substituted by the atheist New Year. It is no longer “Svyaty Mikalaj” (Saint Nicolas) who is bringing presents to children, but  “Dzed Maroz” (Daddy Frost). Now the traditional Christmas is slowly coming back. People are free to attend Christmas services – and many do so. Those who don’t, often watch Christmas services live on TV. Kalyadavanne ritual is also being slowly revived.

What is the typical post-Soviet New Year’s ritual in Belarus like?

Picture yourself as member of a typical Belarusian family, living in a two-room flat in a panel appartment block in Minsk. On December 31 your father takes a good nap before the exhausting festive night, which, he knows, will involve a lot of eating. The mother doesn’t have this privilege – she is busy cooking: similarly to the traditional Christmas celebration, the New Year’s table should be full. The main “sacred” New Year’s dish is “Olivje” salad – a mix of mayonnaise, potatoes, green peas, pickles, and some other ingredients. Don’t be deceived by the French-sounding name – the French people have never heard of such a salad. The children have winter holidays; they eat tangerines and watch New Years’ movies on TV.

The evening comes, and the table is set. The mother is already tired from all the cooking, the father is rather hungry – he’s been saving his appetite for the New Year’s festive meal. TV set will not be turned off – it will lead the family through the celebration, providing entertainment, music, and necessary ideological sermons. The traditional assortment of TV entertainment includes: never-ending stand-up comedies, 

pre-recorded music shows, re-runs of old Soviet comedy films. The comedy “S Legkim Parom” is an absolute “must” – it is shown on every single New Year Eve. The name can be translated like ‘have a light steam’ – this a saying, which people tell each other after sauna. Filmed in the 70s, the movie is a story of a man, who, having had too much vodka in sauna with his friends, ends up in Leningrad instead Moscow, in a typical Soviet apartment  which he mistakes for his own. The lady living there wants to throw him out, but in the end fells in love with the uninvited guest. 


At 23.00 the Russian New Year comes to Russia (Moscow is in another time zone than Minsk). Russian TV can be received by most Belarusians, and many of them watch Putin’s speech, which precedes the chime of Kremlin clock. An hour later, shortly before 0.00 the familiar image of Alyaksandr Lukashenka appears on the screen. This year he will deliver his annual New Year’s address to the nation for the 14th time. Every time Alyaksandr Lukashenka tends to speak long enough to get people anxious about missing long-awaited midnight. Of course, this never happens since the address is most likely pre-recorded.


When the New Year arrives, people pour in “Soviet Champagne” into their glasses (another relict of the Soviet times) and attack the food. Children run to the New Years’ Tree in order to find their presents. By 1.a.m. everyone is completely full. Nevertheless, many people find strength to go for a walk downtown. Such New Year strolls are especially favoured by Minsk citizens. The main avenue of the city is closed for transportation, allowing huge crowds to wander up and down, drinking beer out of bottles or champagne out of plastic glasses, listening to the Belarusian popmusic from the street loudspeakers and waiting for some miracle to happen. They come home late after midnight, exhausted, tipsy, with running noses and shiny eyes. Someone is happy; another one is looking for his/her cell phone that had been lost somewhere on the corner of Lenin street while calling an aunt in a faraway village. The new year has begun.


A New Year’s celebration in a central square of Minsk

Father getting ready for the Christmas dinne

Father Frost caught at the Belarusian border      (by Andrey Liankevich)

By Ales Kudrytski