Since 1992, however, time-honored religious traditions and customs are once again observed openly and with relish. Russian Orthodox Christmas (Rozhdestvo) is celebrated on the Julian calendar date of Jan. 7 each year. Russian Christmas Eve is the last meatless meal of Advent as it is in Ukraine, Poland and other Slavic countries. In Russia, this Holy Supper is known as sochevnik (also solchelnik) or Rozhdestvenskyi sochelnik.
The word sochevnik / solchenik derives from the word sochivo, a dish also known as kutya consisting of boiled wheat sweetened with honey. The meal begins only after the first star is spotted in the night sky, in remembrance of the Star of Bethlehem, which announced the impending birth of the Christ Child.
Hay is spread on the floors and tables to represent the Christ Child's manger, and as a way to augur good crops of horse feed for the coming year, in much the same way clucking noises are made to ensure the hens lay a bountiful supply of eggs. A white tablecloth, symbolic of Christ's swaddling clothes, covers the table and a tall white candle is placed in the center symbolizing Christ as the light of the world. In some families who eat bread on this night, a large round loaf of Lenten bread, pagach, is placed next to the candle.
Advent is a period of fasting and so Christmas Eve supper is meatless and usually consists of 12 courses in honor of Christ's apostles. In very strict Orthodox families, fish, vegetable oil, and alcohol are not allowed, but in other families, they are permitted, but only red wine, not hard liquor.
The meal begins with the Lord's Prayer, led by the father of the family. A prayer of thanksgiving for all the blessings of the past year is said and then prayers for the good things in the coming year are offered. The mother of the family blesses each person present with honey in the form of a cross on each forehead, saying, "In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, may you have sweetness and many good things in life and in the new year."
After this, if bread is consumed, it is dipped first in honey and then in chopped garlic. Honey symbolizes the sweetness of life, while garlic symbolizes the bitterness of life. After dinner, the dishes are left unwashed and the Christmas presents are opened. Then the family goes to church, coming home between 2 and 3 a.m. Christmas Day is spent with family and friends, feasting on roasted piglet, drinking, singing and generally making merry.