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Christmas celebrations in Belarus

Christmas in Belarus has been celebrated in their traditional ways since immemorial times.The ritualistic and religious dimension of the Christmas in Belarus undergone a change in recent times so that the festival has become more secular even though the traditional symbols and mood has remained the same.

The Christmas in Belarus is a major occasion for celebration which the tourist must not miss out on since it spans for over a month.

The Christmas in Belarus is celebrated actually twice since it’s a Catholic country, on the 25th of December and on the 7th of January respectively.

There is also a pagan element attached to the Christmas in Belarus where along with the celebration of the rise of the new god the old deities of the Belarus are not absolutely forgotten.

The interesting blending of the old and the new makes the Christmas in Belarus an unique event. The most symbolic factor categorizing the Christmas in Belarus is the Kolyady or the Christmas carols.
Simultaneous a visit to the church or the cathedral is an important ceremony reinforcing the religious aspect of the Belarus Christmas. The tourist will see plenty of common people visiting them in the large cities of Minsk and in the Grodno Region along your Belarus travel.

Another component which chiefly enhances the festive mood for Christmas in Belarus are the elaborate feasts where boiled rice is taken with raisins and honey, several pies as well as gammon and a goose.

Along with these, dishes are also made out of mushrooms; the herring, vereschaka, boiled fruits, oats kissel are the other traditional items in the Christmas feast. To crown it all the tourist can also taste the nuts and raisins mixed which are added to the several dishes. This is indeed an interesting innovation.

The whole atmosphere that characterizes the Christmas in Belarus is fascinating with the natural surroundings finely spread in the enormous sheets of frost and snow. With beautiful and bright garlands and small green and silvery Christmas trees adorning the landscape, you will experience an enriching view of this Belarus Holiday.

In Belarus the time over Christmas and New Year is called ‘Kaliady’ (this means calendar in Latin and the name comes from the old pre-christian pagan winter solstice celebrations). Kaliady starts and ends with two Christmases and has the New Year celebrations in the middle! It starts on December 25th when Catholics and Protestants in Belarus celebrate Christmas; the big New Year’s Eve celebrations are in the middle; and it ends on January 7th when Christmas is celebrated in the Orthodox church (most people in Belarus celebrate Christmas using the Orthodox date).

During the time that Belarus was part of the Soviet Union, Kaliady and Christmas was not celebrated very much, if at all. New Year was made into the important celebration. But now Christmas celebrations are coming back, although New Year is still the bigger holiday.

Kaliady is also the name for an old pre-soviet tradition where people would dress up and go around their neighbors singing songs – like carol singing. This is still done in some rural villages but isn’t common anymore.

Many of the ‘traditions’ that most people associate with Christmas are now linked to the New Year celebrations. There are New Year Trees (sometimes called holiday trees), and gifts are often put under the tree and are exchanged/opened on New Year’s Eve.

Father Frost and Snegurochka
Father Frost and Snegurochka [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

New Year is also when ‘Father Frost’ (known in Belarus as Dzied Maroz/Ded Moroz or Дзед Мароз) brings presents to children. He is often accompanied by his Grandaughter (Snegurochka). Some children might also have a visit from Sviaty Mikalaj (Святы Мікалай) – St Nicholas.

New Year and Christmas lights are put in towns and cities throughout Belarus.

It’s traditional to have three important meals during Kaliady, which are known as ‘Kućcia’ (or ‘Kutia’ or ‘Kutsia’) meals; this is what Orthodox Christmas Eve is called and is also the name of a porridge which is eaten at the Christmas Eve meal. The first meal is known as the ‘fasting’ or ‘Lent’ Kućcia and the last meal is the ‘Hungry’ Kućcia. They are meant to be very simple with no meat or fat in them. There are normally 12 dishes at the Orthodox Christmas Eve Kućcia to represent Jesus’s 12 disciples. As well as Kućcia porridge the other dishes will items like pancakes, fish and mushrooms; as well as kisel (a dessert made of oatmeal fruit, berries and potato starch sometimes served with milk). Sometimes straw is put under the tablecloth to help people remember that Jesus was placed in a manger as a baby (this is also done in neighbouring countries like Poland and Russia).

The middle Kućcia, eaten on New Year’s Eve and called the ‘great’ Kućcia, is a big feast. Some people will only have the main Kućcia on New Year’s Eve! One vital dish is ‘Olivje’ or ‘Olivier’ salad; it made from potatoes, eggs, green peas, pickles, mayonnaise and ham. Other salads like ‘Shuba’ (diced pickled herring with layers of grated vegetables, chopped onions and mayonnaise) are also popular. Tinned peas are very important and feature in many of the great Kućcia dishes! Mandarin oranges are also normally eaten during New Year’s Eve.

There are several ‘traditional’ film shown on TV on New Year’s Eve. One of these films is ‘S Legkim Parom’ (The Irony of Fate or also sometimes called ‘Enjoy your Bath’ or ‘With a Light Steam’) was made in 1975 during the Soviet era and was always shown on Soviet TV on New Year’s Eve. It’s a romantic comedy about a man who drinks too much and gets very lost after having a sauna with some of his friends.

At about 11.50pm, there is a short speech by the Belarusian President shown on the TV before the New Year arrives at 12am with lots of fireworks! (Some people, who can also get Russian TV, might watch the New Year arrive in Moscow at 11pm Belarus time as Moscow is in a different time zone.)

Catholic and Protestant Christians might go to a Midnight Mass service on the 24th December and/or a Christmas Day service on the 25th December. For Orthodox Christians the main Christmas service normally starts at midnight on the 6th/7th January following the hungry Kućcia and the night time service can last for several hours! Then Christmas Day, on the 7th January, is a public holiday where people visit family and friends.

In Belarusian, Merry Christmas is ‘Z Kaljadami’ (З Калядамі) and Happy New Year is ‘Z Novym godam’ (З Новым годам).

Two Christmases in One Country

Belarus is a unique country when it comes to Christmas: it has one Christmas at the end of December and the other one in early January. Both are official days off.

The Belarusian state officially recognises two confessions – the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches – as the most legitimate and important. Orthodox believers celebrate Christmas on 7 January by the Julian calendar, whereas Catholics celebrate Christmas on 25 December by the Gregorian calendar.

Through centuries of coexistence of many confessions, Belarusians have developed a distinct tolerance towards various religions. However, today these two main confessions have different positions and political backgrounds in relations with the Belarusian authorities. They also pursue different policies towards the use of the Belarusian language in church.

The Land of Many Religions

Orthodoxy was the first Christian confession that came to the territory of contemporary Belarus in the 10th century. The Catholic Church appeared here in the 14th century, when Belarus’ territories constituted the core of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. The Grand Duchy presented a very interesting country religion-wise. Here, various Christian churches coexisted with each other and with Islam and Judaism, as well as with elements of paganism.

Throughout the country’s history, no major conflict has happened between the two biggest churches of Belarus, despite the dominance of one or the other during various historical periods. One or another church’s prevalence depended on the domination of either Russia or Poland in local affairs.

In towns and villages, Catholic and Orthodox churches often stood side by side. A family could celebrate Catholic Christmas on 25 December, and two weeks later join the celebration at their Orthodox friends or neighbours. In independent Belarus, the authorities decided to preserve this good tradition of religious coexistence and set both dates as official holidays.

According to official figures, around 60 per cent of Belarusians today claim to be believers. However, Orthodox Christians appear less religious than Catholics or Protestants. 18 per cent of Orthodox Christians report to be attending church regularly, while 50 per cent of Catholics do so. Most Catholics reside in the western part of Belarus, especially on the borders with Lithuania and Poland. They have a particular identity, more west-oriented, and often call themselves “Poles”, though hardly any of them can speak Polish.

A Chance for THE National Church

In Belarus, a national church like Catholicism in Poland or Orthodox Christianity in Russia never appeared. It has always been a land of many confessions. Perhaps this fact created unfavourable conditions for the development of national consciousness, as the church could not form solid ground for unification of the nation. Because of many periods of change in the country’s religious situation, Belarusians remain generally unreligious people. However, Belarus had a chance to form a national religion, which was the Greek Catholic Church.

In the 16th century, the Orthodox hierarchy of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania created the Greek Catholic (Uniate) Church, which combined elements of both Churches. The church kept the Orthodox rites but was a part of the Catholic Church.

Subsequently, the Uniate Church started to dominate and had the potential to become a real national church at the time when modern nations were being formed. However, external factors impacted that process negatively, and Belarusian territory was annexed to Russia during the partition of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the 18th century.

The Russians pursued a policy of transition from the Uniate to Orthodox Church, and soon the Russian Orthodox Church merged with the Uniate Church. In independent Belarus, enthusiasts attempted to restore the Greek-Catholic church, but the number of parishes remains insignificant today.

Politics of Religion in Belarus

When Belarus gained independence, the churches had to rethink the new conditions and form strategies in their relations with the state. While the Catholic Church took a more pro-independence position, the Belarusian Orthodox Church remains closely tied to the Russian Orthodox Church, which serves as a close friend of the Russian state. Unlike Ukrainians, Belarusians do not have an autocephaly and have to report to Moscow.

After Alexander Lukashenka came to power, the Catholic Church strived to remain as apolitical as possible. It chose not to interfere in politics rather than confront the regime and thus hinder its development.

The Orthodox Church appeared more politically active and supported the newly elected pro-Russian leader. Soon, it established very close relations with him. In exchange for loyalty, the Orthodox Church received various benefits, including a notorious licence to trade alcohol and tobacco.

Lukashenka himself has always tried to use religious organisations in his political games. Being persona non grata among the secular powers of Europe, he decided to make friends with the Holy See and thus raise his image in the West. In 2009, he surprised the world by visiting the Pope together with his younger son Mikalai.

Inspired by this diplomatic success, the authorities started to make further plans. Soon, unofficial information appeared stating that Lukashenka was trying to arrange a meeting between the Pope and the Moscow Patriarch. Such a meeting would definitely raise the wretched profile of the Belarusian leader, but unfortunately for him, this meeting is yet to happen.

Still, relations with the Holy See remain on the agenda of the Belarusian authorities. For example, Apostolic Nuncio Claudio Gugerotti, who visited Belarus in autumn 2012, was the only person whom authorities allowed to meet political prisoners. The regime tries to maintain good relations with Rome simply because it does not put forward any political terms or conditions.

Church and Language Policy

During the independence period, the Catholic Church pursued a firm policy of Belarusianisation. All church services, including worship and books, were translated into Belarusian. Today, the Belarusian language is gradually replacing Polish across Belarus. It already dominates in all parts of Belarus except the Hrodna region, where the number of Poles is significant. Heads of the Catholic Church always address the public in Belarusian during major holidays, which are broadcast on TV and radio.

Heads of the Catholic Church always address the public in Belarusian during major holidays, which are broadcast on TV and radio.

In the Belarusian Orthodox Church, the situation developed differently. Structurally, the Belarusian Orthodox Church constitutes a part of the Russian Orthodox Church. Close ties with Moscow prevented the Belarusian Church from separating and creating an independent Orthodox Church, as did the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Kyiv Patriarchate.

Clearly, in such conditions the Orthodox Church has no desire to formulate any special policies concerning the Belarusian language. In Orthodox churches, Old Slavonic remains the most widespread language. The head of the Belarusian Orthodox church never uses Belarusian in his speeches. Although some priests are enthusiastic about the wider introduction of Belarusian into church services, the leadership remains silent on that issue – Russia is too close.

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