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Russian Holidays

There are a wide range of holidays in the Russian Federation, official and unofficial. Here's a guide to main Russian holidays and how they are traditionally celebrated.

New Year (Новый Год) Dec 31th - January 6th

The New Year is, without doubt, the most important holiday on the Russian calendar, equating if not outstripping the importance of Christmas in America, if to compare the two holidays in the two cultures. New Year in Russia is a time to be together with family and friends, for gift giving, major consumer spending, decorating trees, and even watching and setting off fireworks. Midnight is, by tradition, marked by listening to the Kremlin bells chime (either by turning on the television and hearing them on as broadcast by the major channels or by actually standing on Red Square). Russian folk belief, still seen as tradition by many, holds that one must toast when the bells begin to chime and that those with whom you toast will be near you for the rest of the next year.
The New Year celebration usurped the traditions of a Christmas Tree (Ёлка), Santa (known in Russian as "Дед Mopoз" or "Grampa Frost"), and presents. In the Russian tradition, Grampa Frost's granddaughter, the Snow Maiden (Снегурочка), always accompanies him to help distribute the gifts.

Christmas (Рождество) January 7-8

The Russian Orthodox Church recognizes January 7 as the day Jesus was born. This is actually not so strange; the Romans celebrated Christmas on January 6th up until the year 354, when the bishop of Rome changed it. Some say this change was made according to scholarship available at the time, others say that the day was moved to appease northern pagans who celebrated the birth of a sun god on this day. In the Soviet Union, Christmas was effectively banned under the officially atheist Soviets in 1925. The holiday has not gained much in popularity since its official re-institution in 1992. Some Russians do not celebrate the day at all, while some have a small family dinner, and a very few exchange gifts. Russians with Western friends will often think to congratulate or call these friends on Dec. 25th. The Russian government often gives an additional day or two off around the seventh, creating a very long holiday (consecutive with New Year's) to start off the New Year.

Old New Year (Старый Новый Год) January 14

In one of history's quirkier notes, the Soviets changed the Russian calendar four times. In 1918, at the bequest of Lenin, Russia adopted the Gregorian calendar (the one that Western Europe and the US use). The Russian Orthodox Church, however, clung to the old Julian calendar and, in fact, is still debating whether to officially accept the change. The two calendars disagree by about two weeks, which led many to wonder when they should celebrate the important holiday. Russians, ever the resourceful creatures, started celebrating both dates, creating a new holiday known as the "Old New Year." Although it is not an official holiday recognized by the state, it is still celebrated with food and drink and sometimes small gifts.

Defenders of the Fatherland Day (День Защитника Отечества) February 23

Since all Russian men are supposed to serve in the army (although it is possible not to serve), this day is technically the day of all men. It's history is briefly as follows: in 1918, just after the German invasion of the USSR and capture of Minsk, the Soviets declared a state of emergency and called for a draft in St. Petersburg. Ten thousand people signed up on February 23rd, 1918. It is interesting to note that most Russian histories still record these people as "volunteers" (добровольцев) while Western histories prefer the harder term "draftees" (призывник). The day was first celebrated in Moscow as "Day of the Birth of the Red Army" in 1922. It was made an official holiday in 1923 under the name "Day of the Red Army." The name changed again in 1946 to "Day of the Soviet Army and Navy." As the Soviet Union ceased to exist in 1991, the holiday's name was also changed to its current "Day of the Defenders of the Fatherland." Men are congratulated, given cards, flowers, and gifts on this day. This year, the 23rd falls on a Saturday and so, as required by Russian legislation, the 25th will also be a day off.

Maslenitsa (Масленица) 7 weeks before Orthodox Easter

This full week of celebration is Orthodox Christianity's version of Mardi Gras. Technically, the name means "butter week," as it is the week in which Russians feast on eggs, butter, cheese, and milk (and abstain from meat). The week is also steeped in pagan tradition. Maslenitsa is still seen as the beginning of spring and the end of the long Russian winter, known for its severity and duration. This was a time when the ancient ancestors of the Russians worshiped a sun god, in the hopes that he would stay long and bring bountiful harvests. Bliny (блины - a kind of buttery crepe) was and is baked and eaten as symbol of the sun. The modern Orthodox have resolved this pagan connection by claiming that the sun is a symbol of Christ, or at least his holy spirit (which is also depicted by the golden circle that always occurs behind his head in Russian Orthodox icons). Whatever their meaning, blini are tasty and are baked and eaten in large quantities. In addition, the holiday is also traditionally celebrated with music, bonfires, a stuffed "Lady Maslenitsa" (who is burned in the bonfire), and sledding and snowball fights, if there is still sufficient snow.

International Women's Day (Восьмое марта) March 8

This day is similar to mother's day in America, except that all women are celebrated. Be prepared with flowers and possibly candy, a card, etc. for the important women in your life. AS the date falls on a Saturday in 2008, March 10 will also be a day off. Historically, March 8 has long been internationally associated with women's rights, beginning with a famous mass protest in New York on March 8, 1857, when women from sewing and shoe factories demonstrated for rights equal to those of men. Men had recently won a 10-hour workday. Women, however, were forgotten in the legislation and kept to a 16-hour workday. The strike was well-publicised and gained public support and became a day for regular demonstrations in the US and Europe. In 1910, during a meeting of women in the Socialist International, a proposal was made to adopt March 8th as an international socialist holiday marking the struggle for women's rights. The International did adopt the idea, proclaiming just such a holiday, but did not assign to it any particular date, leaving that decision up to the party members from each country. The day was first celebrated in St. Petersburg in 1913, but it would not become an official state holiday and day off until 1965. Most likely, however, the greatest historical significance of the date for Russians is as the date that Russian women first gained the right to vote: on March 8, 1917 (according to the Julian Calendar), under the newly installed Provisional Government. Russian women had campaigned for more rights as the war effort during WWI had necessitated that they take on a greater role in the workforce and society. As an interesting note to end on, American women would gain the right to vote only three years later.

The Day of Spring and Labor (Праздник Весны и Труда) May 1

Formerly International Worker's Solidarity Day under the old Communist system, it seems that everyone calls this one something different now. "Labor Day," "The May Holiday," and "Worker's Day" all seem to be used, but everyone at least uses the same date. It is celebrated with parades, concerts, food, and drink and traditionally kicks off the dacha season. The holiday will be officially observed from the first to the third of May, with official days off. The fourth of May will be a work day.

Victory Day (День Победы) May 9

This day celebrates the end of WWII (The Great Patriotic War, as Russians know it), in which Russia lost some 20 million people. Understandably, the Russians take this day quite seriously; imagine Memorial Day and the Fourth of July in America combined to get some indication of its scope. It is celebrated by parades, concerts, fireworks, recognition of veterans (who usually dress up for the occasion) and, of course, food and drink. As it is quite close to the May 1-2 holidays, many Russians take some extra time off to escape to their dachas for nearly two weeks so as to "open" it for the summer season.

Russia Day (День России) June 12

This holiday commemorates the adoption of the 1991 Declaration of Sovereignty of the Russian Federation which declared Russia's "independence" from the USSR. However, many Russians are still unaware that this was ever done viewing Russia, instead, as a successor state to the USSR. In accordance with this view this holiday is generally celebrated simply as show of patriotism for Russia. It's celebrated similarly to Victory Day, with fireworks set off at 10 p.m. This year, the holiday will be marked from the twelfth to the fifteenth of June, although seventh will be a work day. More on Russia Day.

People's Unity Day (День народного единствa) November 4

Russia's absolute newest holiday, created in 2004, celebrates the liberation of Moscow from Polish troops in 1612 and the subsequent end of the "time of troubles." This is the first time in nearly 400 years, however, that an official state holiday has marked the occasion, leading many Russians to ask why it was created. It's very possible that when the Duma abolished Nov 7th (formerly Revolution Day) from the national calendar, they felt a holiday was needed in November so that people would not have to go from June to January without one. Nov 4 was sufficiently important. Given it's proximity to the old holiday, many Russians haven't noticed the name change yet, particularly since this holiday is celebrated the same as the old holiday: with fireworks, food, and drink. This holiday will be observed in Russia from the second to the fourth of November; the first will be a work day.

City Day (День города) May 27

Varies by city.
Each city in Russia celebrates its official founding date with fireworks, concerts, speeches by local politicians and other figures, food, drink, and other city-specific festivities. City day for Moscow is the 31st of August and, for St. Petersburg, the 27th of May.


City Transport in St Petersburg

A busy five-million large Russian metropolis, Saint-Petersburg possesses an excellent public transportation system. In addition to the vast metro network, there are trams, buses, trolleybuses, taxis, route taxis. Suburban trains run from the city to all surrounding areas.


Metro Map

Launched half a century ago (1955), St Petersburg metro is the deepest and among the most impressive subways in the world. At present it has four lines in operation, with 59 stations, marked with a large "M" and having separate doors for entrance and exit. Metro stations are open daily from 5:30a.m. to 1 a.m. You can transfer from one line to another until 0:15 a.m. Trains run every one to two minutes during peak periods, and three to five minutes at night. Tokens as well as plastic discount cards are available at all stations. You pay the same price for any ride, irrespective of its length. The four metro lines are #1 (red), #2 (blue), #3 (green) and #4 (orange). Line one is particularly renowned for its spectacular stations.


It is quite appropriate to call St. Petersburg the "city of trams": it has more trams than any other city in the world and trams have been a constant presence in the city since 1862. Tram stops are marked with a "T" on signs above the traps. All trams have conductors on board who you should pay in cash, unless you have a monthly pass. Trams run from 6 a.m. to 1 a.m.


The bus network in St Petersburg is extensive and fairly efficient. Bus stops are marked by signs with the letter "A" which stands for "autobus" There are several types of buses: regular municipal buses, which have conductors on board; T-buses (taxi-buses) that accept cash only; E-buses (express buses) - larger and more comfortable, and twice as expensive as the metro. You can find express busses now on all major routes. Also popular are commercial vans, or route taxis, called in Russian "marshrutniye taksi" or "marshrutki". Perhaps the most efficient means of transport in the city, these carry 10-15 people and stop only for the passengers to get on or off.


Trolleybuses are essentially electric buses that get power from electric wires. Along with trams, trolleybuses and the most environmentally-friendly public transport in St. Petersburg , though not the fastest. They can get crowded at times, particularly during rush-hour. Trolleybus stops are marked with the blue letter "T". The fare on trolleys is the same as on trams and municipal buses. Trolleybuses also generally run from 6 a.m. to 1 a.m.


St. Petersburg does not have as many cabs as New York or London, but there are still plenty available in the center. Nowadays there are both official taxis with a checked logo on the doors and a dome light on the roof, and private taxis that come in all shapes and sizes. They usually work either with tourists or with well-off Russians at airports, railway stations, hotels, restaurants and clubs, and rates vary. Though many cars are equipped with meters, not all, so, it is important to determine the cost of transportation before the trip.

Water taxis

A wonderful, romantic trip inside the city center is available by water taxi. These travel on all central St Petersburg canals and cost between 150 and 300 rubles, great value for accessing the enchanting views of the city from the water.

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