If you’re thinking of traveling to Moscow over Christmas and New Year’s, in this article I’ll tell you about the orthodox traditions of the Russians and what you can do in Moscow during this time of year: ice skating, shopping at Christmas flea markets, riding a husky sled, attending an ice hockey game…
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1. Special features of a Russian Christmas
1.1. An Orthodox Christmas
The first thing to be said is that Russians are Orthodox Christians and they celebrate Christmas from December 31 to January 14.
The explanation is simple. Although after the October Revolution (1917) Russia adopted the Gregorian calendar which is widely used in Europe, the Russian Orthodox Church refused to abandon the hitherto used Julian calendar which is 13 days behind the Gregorian calendar.
Consequently, religious festivities are put back by those 13 days, so the Orthodox Christmas is still celebrated on January 7 each year instead of December 25 (a working day in Russia).
In Russia, Orthodox Christians attend Christmas Eve Mass in churches across the country at midnight on January 6, such as the mass of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow, the city’s most important cathedral and the headquarters of the Orthodox Patriarch of Moscow.
New Year’s Eve is celebrated on December 31 as Russians have now adapted to the Western New Year. That night you shouldn’t miss the fireworks launched from Red Square.
But there are still Russians who also celebrate New Year’s Eve from January 13 to 14, following the Julian calendar. Well, some people have 2 New Year’s Eve 🙂
1.2. Ded Moroz, the Russian Santa Claus
Father Christmas or the Russian Santa Claus is called Ded Moroz, translated literally as Grandfather Frost or Grandfather Snow. The origins of the Ded Moroz character predate Christianity as a Slavic winter wizard.
In 1998 the city of Veliky Ustyug in the Vologda Oblast was declared the Russian home of Ded Moroz. Between 2003 and 2010, the post office in Veliky Ustyug received approximately 2,000,000 letters to Ded Moroz from Russia and around the world. Putin visited Ded Moroz’s residence in Christmas 2008.
Ded Moroz’s assistant who gives gifts to the children on New Year’s Eve is his granddaughter Snegurochka, the “Snow Maiden”.
Their transportation is a troika with three white horses instead of reindeer.
So now you know, if you’re travelling in Russia during the Christmas season, don’t confuse Father Christmas or Santa Claus with Ded Moroz.
1.3. The Orthodox Epiphany
Orthodox Russians celebrate the Epiphany or Baptism of the Lord from the night of January 18 to January 19. It is customary for people to dive into freezing river water at midnight three times to commemorate the baptism of Jesus Christ. In the case of Moscow it’s done in the Moskva River which freezes in winter.
So now you know, if your stay lasts until January 19, you are “required” to take this special dip. I’ve never dared to do it.
1.4. And what’s the weather like at Christmas and what clothes do I take with me?
During this time of year it’s very cold in Moscow, so taking a dip in the freezing waters of the Moskva River is a major feat. In any case, I recommend looking at the weather forecast a few days before leaving on your trip.
In late December and early January temperatures might be below zero. Normally there is snow, which gives the city a special charm. Of course, you have to bundle up. You’re going to need a good hat, a good coat, a scarf, gloves and snow boots.
2. What to do in Moscow over Christmas and New Year’s
In this section I’ll be focussing on the things you can do over Christmas and New Year’s in Moscow, at least the things I consider most typical.
I must tell you that many Muscovites take advantage of these holidays to travel to other warmer places or to the sea, although there are also many tourists from other parts of Russia who visit Moscow at this time, in addition to foreign tourists.
During this period, Moscow, like Saint Petersburg, is filled with Christmas lights, Christmas markets, skating rinks, concerts or sporting events.
2.1. Moscow Christmas Markets
Downtown Moscow is transformed into a fairy-tale world with beautiful Christmas decorations and spectacular lights.
At these markets you can eat blinis or pancakes, watch folk shows, learn to make ancient Russian craft items or buy Christmas souvenirs.
The location of the Christmas markets and scheduled events are published on the Moscow Government website named Moscow Seasons.
2.2. Ice skating rinks
From the end of November outdoor skating rinks are created in different parks and squares in Moscow and they are usually open until March. At some of these rinks there are also performances by professional skaters.
Of the many skating rinks built in the city I would highlight 3:
Red Square Skating Rink
It’s not a very big rink, but it has the special appeal of being in the middle of Red Square. Because of this it is very touristy and tends to get quite crowded.
The rink is built and managed by the GUM Shopping Mall. It can hold 450 people and opens from June 30 to March 1 between 10:00 am and 11:30 pm
- Online ticket sales: http://gum-katok.ru/?lang=en
Gorky Park Skating Rink
If the Red Square skating rink holds 450 people, the Gorky Park Skating Rink can accommodate up to 6,000 in its surface area of nearly 20,000 square meters, so there’s room for everyone.
This is my favorite skating rink in Moscow, because it’s not the typical rectangular ice rink where you go around in circles, but an ice rink with different streets and lanes by which you can access any of the 23 cafes and restaurants with your skates on, or rest areas where you can warm up.
This rink is open until March 9, from Tuesday to Thursday 10 a.m. to 11 p.m., and from Friday to Sunday 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. It also includes a professional ice hockey rink.
On this map you can see the lanes of this skating rink marked in blue:
VDNH Skating Rink
Another very spectacular skating rink is the VDNH Park skating rink, which also has a surface area of about 20,000 square meters and holds 5,000 people. It also includes a professional ice hockey rink.
- Website: https://katok.vdnh.ru/
2.3. Boat Tour on the Moskva River
Until not so long ago it was only possible to take a cruise in Moscow from April to October, that is, during the warmer months.
However, for some years now an icebreaker boat has been responsible for allowing the passage of boats during the winter.
If money is no problem, some cruise co mpanies organize New Year’s Eve dinners right on the boat with a show included. These are ideal places from which to watch the beautiful fireworks launched every year on New Year’s Eve from Red Square.
2.4. Visit Moscow Museums for free
During the Christmas season all Moscow museums, palaces and parks are open. Of course, keep in mind that they close on Orthodox Christmas Day (January 7) and usually on Mondays.
The good thing about this season is that about a hundred museums are free. Every year the Moscow City Council publishes the list of free museums on its website. At this link (in Russian), you can see the free museums for Christmas 2020.
2.5. Husky Park
The Moscow Husky Park is located at Sokolniki Park, and there you can do various activities with the Siberian huskies, a famous breed of working dog originating from Chukotka (Siberia) that bears a close resemblance to the wolf.
One typical activity is riding a sled pulled by huskies through the snow.
- Website: https://en.husky-sokolniki.ru/
2.6. Ice hockey games
A good place to watch an ice hockey game is the CSKA Arena (also called Legends Park). The official opening of this complex, initially called VTB Ice Palace, took place in April 2015.
CSKA Moscow and Spartak Moscow play in this stadium, and the World Ice Hockey Championship was held there in 2016 when Canada won the gold medal, Finland the silver and Russia the bronze, after beating the US team.
You can purchase tickets for matches through this link to the CSKA Arena or directly on the hockey teams’ websites:
Not very far from this sports complex, in the south of the city, are the beautiful Moscow parks of Kolomenskoye or Tsaritsyno, so a good plan before going to a hockey game is to visit one of these beautiful parks.
Another place to watch an ice hockey game in the north-western part of the city is the VTB Arena, a sports complex that includes a soccer field and an ice hockey rink. It is owned by Dynamo Moscow.
- Ticket sales: https://ticket.dynamo.ru/
Have you been to Moscow over Christmas? What other Christmas activities would you add? You may leave your comments below.