In America, the colored lights came down long ago. Not so in Novosibirsk. In the still-long nights and dark mornings of February they burn brightly.

This is all in celebration of the winter holidays. And no, I’m not using that phrase the way people in the U.S. do so they can avoid mentioning Chr-Chr-Chr- … uh, you know, that birth some silly people celebrate on December 25. Never mind that the Birthday Boy came as Savior of the world, to redeem the lost, to die for sinners, to conquer death by His cross and resurrection, and so on. As though He did something terrible instead of something wonderful, in the States there’s constant pressure to eliminate any public traces of Him. But I digress.

Here there are truly winter holidays. This is because there are as many as two Christmases and two New Years, with a few other days thrown in between and after. In Russia they switched from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar only in 1918, and the Orthodox Church—helped by society in general—keeps with the old. This means that Russian Christmas occurs 13 days later than “Catholic Christmas.” So those who observe the day on December 25 are treated to a second taste of a good thing on January 7. Best of all, no one is clamoring for Christ to be secreted within churches. Russian Christmas gets full TV air time on the major networks. Does anyone besides me sense the irony?

Then there’s “Old New Year,” which falls on the modern calendar’s January 14. While it’s not as big a celebration as January 1, a lot of people keep it. I read somewhere that more than 80% of Russians were planning to make merry this year. That percentage may be a bit over the top, but it does show that the old day is a diehard.

January 20 is Russian Orthodox Epiphany, which, unlike Epiphany in the West, includes the Baptism of Our Lord. This is the day many Russians, believers and non-believers alike, dip themselves three times in ice-cold water, in sub-zero temperatures. (For more details see my recent blog post “A Cold Dip in Mid-Winter.”)

Between January 1 and January 8, everything pretty much comes to a halt here. Even when it starts up again, things are running at maybe half-pace. Russia has a long tradition of slowing up in the long, cold winters, and of planning joyous festivities to dispel the dark and gloom. Even when modern technology makes this less necessary, one can still sense how the ways of the ancestors remain in the blood. The mood is celebratory and semi-celebratory all winter long. A few people, not waiting for the next big occasion, just have one extended winter holiday.

Finally, there’s February 26, Army Day, or The Day of Defenders. It has been expanded to honor all men, not just those who serve in uniform. While not as big as International Women’s Day on March 8, it gives an occasion for one final winter fling.

In the meantime, the colored lights shine on.