Belarus has fewer public holidays than any neighboring country. Only three of them are celebrated nationwide in winter. But, there are more holidays that people celebrate while still going to work. Some of them are broadly international, like New Year and Valentine's Day. Some are religious, like Christmas. Some were inherited from the Soviet Union like Fatherland Defender's Day. And some are just odd - like the Old New Year. Learn when, where, and how to celebrate them.
In the post-Soviet countries, Christmas is less significant than the New Year. It is a religious public holiday devoted to going to church and spending time with your family. There is no Christmas Eve, no presents, no Santa. There is no such term as Christmas parties yet, although Christmas markets are spreading the virus of consumerism. And, that is pretty much all that goes around during this holiday. Unlike in the west, all of the shops are open, and people gladly use their last chances to buy presents for the New Year. Check out the Red Church of Simon and Helena and the Cathedral of Saint Virgin Mary in Minsk for the Christmas carols.
The New Year is big. Ded Moroz (Grandfather Frost) and his granddaughter Snegurochka (Snowgirl) bring presents for the kids to celebrate the beginning of the New Year. People feast at the dinner party at home from around 9:00 pm. Five minutes before midnight, everybody's listening to the president's speech. Make 12 wishes for each bell ring announcing the new year and open champagne. Share the gifts and go outside. Fireworks around will make it feel a bit too loud, so be careful. Every big district has its own Christmas tree, but the biggest will be on October Square in front of the Palace of the Republic. Concerts continue till around 2 am, but people keep celebrating, so make sure you have enough alcohol (or tea) with you!
The same story happens with the Orthodox Christmas as with the Catholic Christmas. The best choice to feel the event is to visit Orthodox churches. Otherwise, you can opt-out for any of the remaining Christmas markets at the Palace of Sport and October Square.
Most of the religious holidays in medieval Belarus are connected to the ritual of Kalyada. Christianity dressed a pagan activity commemorating the dead into a Christmas-like appearance.
Typical Kalyada scenario includes characters like goat, bear, a gypsy couple, grandfather, and a Kalyada. Two of them carry a bag for donations and a pole with the star on top. Musicians with accordion and tambourine follow the band. They go from home to home and sing and dance under the windows till they get invited. After they come in, the goat drops dead until treated with Kalyada donations: food sweets and alcohol. Goat rises to dance more, and the band wishes all the best for the following year. Repeat at the next house. Although it is typical for all the Christmas related celebrations in Belarus, Kalyada on Schchodry Vechar (generous evening) is the closest to the roots of the tradition.
Two weeks of time-skip after switching from Julian to Gregorian calendar didn't mess up only Christmas. For a couple of years, people were confused with the date change and by inertia started celebrating New Year two times in a row.
The time settled everything down, and now the New Year is the main holiday, but many people still use the old tradition as an extra reason to have a party. If you agree with that concept, check out bars on Zybitskaya Street in Minsk or main bars in other cities. They might have parties or at least special offers connected to the date.
If the Old New Year was bizarre in the story, Epiphany could blow your mind with the ritual. People celebrate the Baptism of Jesus Christ by repeating the ancient Jordan procedure in local lakes and rivers. The catch is that January in Belarus is somewhat colder than in the Mediterranean climate. Church unites with water guards to carve small ponds in the ice-covered lakes so people could dive. The temperature often drops to minus 10-20.
To take part in the event in Minsk go to Drozdy Lake or Komsomolskoye water guard station. Think twice before trying it and better consult your physician. If you do that, take a fool body swimming suit. You might get a curse if you follow the sacred ritual in a bikini or a wet T-shirt.
In Belarus, no holiday would be called Fathers' Day. But there is Women's Day and Mothers' day. What was originally a militarian holiday turned in some ways into a man's day. It is a bit tricky, though. As a foreigner, you can not be congratulated as a Defender of Fatherland in Belarus. Local kids get their presents as a motivation for future acts of patriotism. In general, it is a local thing that you can feel mostly in a work environment or see its byproduct in a ridiculous amount of shaving foam gift packs in all shops. Plus, you can check the bar streets. There might be some happy hours for men or go-go dancers in military uniform. Mind not to mix them up with real policemen or military.
Some people would also include St. Valentine's Day in the guide to the winter holidays. In Belarus, it is celebrated just like in the rest of Europe. People date or celebrate their merry single life. Another winter holiday is Maslenitsa. This end of winter celebration is set on the 8th week before Easter. Depending on the year, it might be set for the last weeks of February or even in March. This week-long celebration before the Great Lent is all dedicated to eating pancakes in enormous amounts. A straw scare-crow symbolizing winter is burned in the end to welcome the spring with a new set of holidays.
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