One of the ports of call on a Baltic cruise is the Russian city of St Petersburg. Christmas in St Petersburg is something quite different, yet very special.
Christmas in St Petersburg is a little different from in the West, as it is celebrated on January 7th. The reason for this is that the Russian Orthodox Church continues to use the old Julian calendar, which is thirteen days behind the more commonly used Gregorian calendar which most of us are familiar with.
A visit to St Petersburg at Christmas (whenever you celebrate it) can be a magical and enchanting vacation experience. A snowy blanket over the city in December is almost guaranteed. There are ski resorts and Christmas theme parks just outside St Petersburg, which transport the visitor to a winter wonderland; they can even take reindeer rides and sleigh rides through pristine white forests.
The city of St Petersburg has much to offer as well, with Christmas markets and displays. The market at Ostrovskogo Square has close to seventy stalls which offer everything from traditional foods like blini, to hot drinks; traditional Russian crafts; a children’s theatre; and an ice skating rink. These markets are operational from mid-December, right up through New Year’s Eve and until January 7th.
December 25th is not a public holiday in Russia; Russian holidays over the “Christmas” season are as follows:
- The last week in December is the St Petersburg White Days Festival. The festival is designed in part to lure tourists; it involves carnivals, markets, and performances of dance, orchestral music, and opera.
- January 1st and 2nd are New Year, which is a very important family event that involves feasting and gift giving, centred around a huge fir tree under which gifts are placed. Soviet Leaders, including Stalin, transferred the traditional Christmas activities to the New Year as a more secular event. There is even a Russian version of Santa Claus who visits at the New Year bearing gifts. It is also a time to feast and celebrate end of the Orthodox custom of 40 days’ fasting before Christmas. After abstaining from meat and dairy, the feast features pork and beef roasts with fatty sauces; veal in aspic; cured meats; salads rich in ham and eggs and mayonnaise; buttery pancakes enjoyed with copious amounts of caviar; all washed down with vodka and vodka-based Russian schnapps.
- January 7th is Russian Orthodox Christmas – a more sombre occasion for attending Mass before another festive meal.
- January 14th – is “Old” New Year’s Day – celebrated yet not officially a holiday, it harks back to when the whole of Russia followed the Julian calendar, not just the Orthodox churches.
A visit to St Petersburg during the Christmas season can be a magical and unique experience. A brilliant stopover during a Baltic cruise, it is a city to put on one’s “bucket list”, for a vacation like no other.