From White Nights to Black Days: Surviving the Deep, Dark Winter in St. Petersburg

One of the most exquisite agonies of living in St Petersburg is the sheer, precipitous speed with which winter closes its jaws on the city. It's really not so long ago that the evening skies — though not quite burning with the boundless intensity of White Nights — were still serviceably bright while the majestic bridges continued to yawn into the luminous twilight with admirable tenacity and enthusiasm.

But over the course of a couple of short, fleeting months, all that has radically changed. Dark pitchy night now comes down like a shutter in the late afternoon. Temperatures have plunged into the nether regions of the thermometer scale. The glorious waterways are now all snarled up with ice, while the famous bridges are clasped shut. In what seems like barely more than the blink of an eye, White Nights have given way to Black Days.

But do not despair! Even St Petersburg’s notoriously harsh winter affords inhabitants and visitors with a few joys and diversions. On the shortest day — and consequently longest night — of the year, we bring you a Winter Solstice wish-list of the best cultural events and festivals to brighten up St. Petersburg’s bleak, black days.

Photo Credit: Kudago

Perhaps the most spectacular and dazzling to illuminate the city’s dark, crepuscular season will be the Light Show on Palace Square, due to take place every evening from 7pm to 11pm between December the 25th and the 30th. Gigantic projectors are set to transform the stunning facades of the Winter Palace and General Staff Building into a neo-classical canvas for digitally enhanced video wizardry and the fine art of Russian animated storytelling.

The multimedia show will comprise of three distinct sections, all drawing inspiration from this year’s citywide celebration of Russian and Soviet Cinema: the first will see the city’s iconic Bronze Horseman monument — rather like in Pushkin’s narrative poem of the same name — come alive to gallop through the streets, before finally ending up, improbably, in the foggy London byways of Sherlock Holmes; the second will be a reworked Russian fairy tale conjuring up the New Year dreams of a young Russian boy; while the third promises an intriguing contemporary animated comedic travelogue involving two obstreperous suitcases abandoned on the luggage belt in Pulkovo airport!

On December 30 at 10pm, the digital imagery on the stucco will be complemented by an equally incandescent firework display in the velvety sky above the palace. All in all, it promises to be an event that will banish the gloom from even the most stubbornly umbrous St. Petersburg Soul. More details can be found here.

Photo Credit: Peterburg2

Sprinkling Winter magic in equal — though more traditional — measure will be ICE Fantasy Ice Sculpture Festival, which runs from December 24th to January 29th at the Peter and Paul fortress. This will involve a mind-boggling 60 massive ice sculptures made of more than 170 tons of ice. Exhibits will include a shimmering 7-meter high pirate ice-ship, complete with frost-sails and icicle-rigging — as well as a proud, strutting ice-rooster, carved from blocks tinted specially red. These will all have pride of place in a pavilion right on the shores of the frozen Neva. Admission ranges from 300 roubles for children and 450 for adults. More info can be found here.

Though its objectives are somewhat business oriented, the eleventh St. Petersburg Christmas Fair, running from December 24th to January 8th, promises to be a heartening affair styled after the kinds of traditional Russian fairs that once took place in old Moscow, Yaroslavl and Novgorod. There’ll be the usual cast of gypsies, buffoons, peasants and various characters from Russian fairy tales (incidentally, lifting the Winter financial pall also from many of the city’s actors during these gloomy off-season months.) The event, which takes place every day from 12pm to 12pm on Pioneer Square in front of the Young Spectator’s Theatre near Pushkinskaya subway station, also features an ice-rink and a boisterous little market where visitors will be able to try different traditional international and of course Russian fare. Nothing fortifies the flagging soul during these scarce daylight hours than a good old classic Russian pie! Find out more here.

Photo Credit: Sobaka

Another option is the Ice Rink and Christmas Bazaar in Novaya Golandia or New Holland, which takes place until the 8th January in the "Byutilka" (or "Bottle") building, a complex of artisan shops and cafes. Also on offer will be plays for kids, master classes in "Santa's Studio' and a cinemascope projection on New Year’s Eve of the Nutcracker Ballet.

Finally, and unforgettably, in this trio of Bazaars is The Drunken Bazaar to be held on January, 5th at the Tkachi creative space on Obvodny Kanal, which offers connoisseurs and Christmas alcoholics alike the opportunity to try as many wonderful types of mulled wine as their livers can bear. Details here.

From December 20th to January 10th, the Peter and Paul fortress will host the wonderfully eccentric Festival of New Year Spruces, a kind of beauty pageant for Christmas and New Year trees. Don’t worry — unlike Miss Universe, Donald Trump will not be one of the judges; you can vote for the best yourself online here. Entry is free of charge.

Photo Credit: Vladtime

Inevitably, to keep spirits up in the city of darkness, Ded Moroz or Russian Father Christmas has also been conscripted. Though he doesn’t Ho-Ho or "wobble his belly like a bowlful of Jelly' quite as much as his Western counterpart, he and his sidekick Snegourochka, or Snow Maiden, will be playing a vital and highly-conspicuous role.

On December 24th, a Ded Moroz Race will be held at the Catherinehof park, near Narvskaya Metro station — all the runners will be dressed as Ded Moroz, costumes will be given out at the start. There will be three main distances — 2.5, 5 and 10 km, and also a track for children, families and participants with dogs. The start of the race will be at 12pm and the participation fee is from 300 to 1,500 rubles. Participants need to register beforehand here. The real Ded Moroz, we are given to understand, will not be competing, but may play a role in adjudication.

Photo Credit: MetroNews

From December 23th to 25th and 28th to 30th, Ded crops up again on the Dedmorobus — a bus with an orchestra of Ded Morozes! There’ll be New Year Songs aplenty and sweets for all the kids; departures are from the Galleria Shopping centre on Ligovsky Prospect, with stopovers at the city’s landmark spots.

And from right now till the end of December, Ded pops up yet again on the New Year Tram. This time, he and his trusty Snegurochka are giving tours of the city for the bargain price of 200 roubles in a tram blazing with fairy lights.

For those of a more cultural bent — or just sick of the leering sight of Ded Moroz — the Stroganov Palace of the Russian Museum is planning to host special New Year tours. where guests will see not only the palace, but also explore the various traditions of celebrating Christmas as practiced by 19th Century Russian nobility. This will also be workshops in English on how to create authentic aristocratic Russian New Year souvenirs.

The tours will start at 11am, 12pm and 3pm, the workshops — at 12pm, 2pm and 4pm. The cost of tickets is 300 rub, they can be booked by e-mail, by phone +7 (812) 347-87-19, or online here.

Photo Credit: Visit-StPetersburg

On December 24th, Western Christmas Eve, the Hermitage Youth Center will host a New Year Ball on the theme of: "From Breugel to Fabre". Guests will participate in eating competitions, costume contests and choose their King and Queen of the evening. Lots of silly, jolly fun, in other words, for the quaintly pretentious arty set! Participants should come in costumes inspired by the work of either Dutch Renaissance Painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Master of Medieval Excess Hieronymus Bosch or Belgian Provocateur Jan Fabre, whose deeply weird beetle-wing paintings are dotted around the Hermitage at the moment — or indeed any other carnival-style get-up. The event starts at 6pm and entry is free of charge, but all guests should register in advance.

Photo Credit: Bw4u

Of course, there will also be the traditional, time-honoured methods of staving off the winter blues — and ringing in the New Year — such as standing on Palace Square in sub-zero ass-numbing temperatures while being bombarded by the twangy, tortuous Europop strains of a litany of B-List pop-stars, punctuated by Putin’s speech on the big screen. The celebrations start there at 11pm on the 31st and go on till 4 in the morning, with a fireworks display at 3am over the Neva river.

Or you could just try to get gently and merrily inebriated, as is also traditional in these parts, for the entire holiday period which seems to go on interminably with Russian Christmas on the 6th/7th January and the enigma that is "Old New Year' on the 14th (actually New Year as determined by the old and now defunct Julian Calendar.) Or you could resort, as many St Petersburgers do, to pure good cheer, resilience, blockade spirit, sarcasm, black humour, stockpiles of vitamin D or any other weapon or means available to get through one of the deepest winters anywhere on the planet

White Nights may get all the attention with its glitzy pageantry and touristy boat excursions and red-carpet opera events. But St. Petersburg’s Black Days say much more about the human condition and the spirit of Russian survival and, as I hope we have demonstrated here, can be just as much fun.

Main Photo Credit: Bluesky-Oz

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