When Russians celebrated the Julian calendar's New Year on 14 January 2007, they concluded an extended Christmas holiday with a particular significance for religion in their country - reports Sophia Kishkovsky from Moscow for Ecumenical News International.
The Russian Orthodox Church celebrated Christmas according to the Julian calendar on 7 January. Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin moved Russia onto the Western Gregorian calendar, and after Josef Stalin banned Christmas, the main end-of-year holiday on the Soviet calendar became New Year, on 1 January.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Christmas on 7 January has once again become an official holiday. Unofficially, especially in big cities like Moscow, many Russians also use 25 December as an extra excuse for celebration. In Moscow's largest toy store, Detsky Mir, Christmas decorations appeared in mid October. Christmas trees started going up around the Russian capital in mid November.
The official holiday now runs from 31 December to 8 January, but Russia effectively shuts down until 15 January. Those who deride the country's long holiday say it's just an excuse for oligarchs to take to the slopes at Courchevel in the French Alps, and less monied Russians to take to the bottle.
Moscow police in Soviet times would surround churches on religious holidays and intimidate believers. Now, they guard churches and after major feasts provide statistics on attendance. On the night of 6 January, most Russian Orthodox churches hold Christmas services late at night, including a midnight liturgy, and nearly 120 000 people attended Moscow churches, police reported.
Russian church officials say the figures was five times that as most churches celebrated another Christmas liturgy on the morning of 7 January.
Village churches are not so well guarded. In the Sverdlovsk region, robbers killed a priest after stripping his church of icons on Christmas Eve.
The largest number of worshippers, more than 7000, attended Christ the Saviour Cathedral in Moscow, where Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexei II led Christmas services. He spoke of the restoration of the cathedral, which was blown up by Stalin in 1931, and the site had been used for a swimming pool at one time.
"Ten years ago there was a pool here, emptiness," said Alexei. "Now residents of the capital are used to the majestic church on this spot, and it is full of believers." Recent polls, he noted, show that two-thirds of Russians identify themselves as Orthodox and that the number of atheists has fallen by half in the last 15 years.
President Vladimir V. Putin attended services at the New Jerusalem Monastery near Moscow.
[With grateful acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the Conference of European Churches]