If you have not heard of Pumpkin Savior’s Day, you’re not alone. It is a day whose meaning is far from clear to many Russians who have not heard of it too, until recently, when Russian officials, schools, and propagandists came up with an ancient Slavic holiday as an import substitute for Halloween.
A Russian anthropologist Alexandra Arkhipova noted that in 2023, 867 publications had substituted Halloween with this new “traditional holiday.” There were zero references in 2013.
Not that the event is a Russian tradition. It entered the calendar in the 1990s when Westernization was all the rage in the newly open Russia. October 31 became an occasion to socialize and have fun, maybe even to enjoy a mystical experience, and relate to Western culture.
The Russian Orthodox church immediately labeled it satanic. To prove the point, it disregarded etymology (All Hallows’ Even, which means All Saints’ Day) and concluded that Halloween derives from the word Hell.
The phrase Pumpkin Savior’s Day appeared in 2016 as a light-hearted attempt to highlight the growing role of the Orthodox Church in Russian life and Russian isolationistic policy. Last year, the media started taking it seriously as a good and positive holiday that accords with the Russian spirit and culture, and as a counterpoint to Halloween’s blood, ghosts, and witches.
The fake festival was given a further boost this year thanks to a story about Izhevsk school No. 16. Its administrators used the term to invite students to an annual get-together at the end of October. A school group message in the VKontakte stated that the holiday’s meaning is “a deep sense of gratitude and respect for nature, traditions and family ties.” Costumes of evil powers and Western cultural characters were banned.
The campaign was also assisted by official action. Yakutia’s Ministry of Education banned schools from celebrating Halloween, referring to the importance of spiritual and moral values, as well as a patriotic upbringing. In Surgut, several schoolchildren in Halloween costumes were attacked, doused with artificial blood, and sprayed with pepper spray by unknown assailants.
Interestingly enough, the Russian Orthodox Church also dislikes Pumpkin Savior’s Day, calling it “crazy ignorance” and “the work of folklorists” and considering it an insult to the feelings of believers.
The term “spas” (honoring Jesus Christ the Savior) assumes a connection of a day with an important event in the life of Christ. The Orthodox August calendar has holidays called Honey, Apple, and Nut (or Bread) Savior’s Days, which are historically associated with harvest holidays spiced with spiritual meanings by the Christian religion. Instead, the church has proposed replacing Halloween with St. Luke’s Day. Some media even suggest that clerics may one day decide to start a new custom by consecrating pumpkins.
State Duma Deputy Vitaly Milonov proposed testing anyone in fancy dress on October 31 for alcohol, drugs, and non-traditional orientation. He suggested Halloween celebrations violate federal law and that instead, members of the public celebrate by shooting pumpkins depicting the heads of presidents Joe Biden and Volodymyr Zelenskyy. A more moderate Deputy Nylov proposed that it simply be renamed as the Day of Scary Fairy Tales and Stories.
The Russian Academy of Education’s study concludes that Halloween causes serious moral and psychological damage, contradicts legislation on the secular character of education, and propagates violence, aggression, immorality, and children’s antisocial behavior. According to its experts, it twists universal representations of good and evil, causes demonization of children’s consciousness, and promotes “Anglo-Saxon pseudo-culture” and lifestyle.
“He who plays jazz today will betray the Motherland tomorrow” according to a popular Soviet saying. Stressing “ancient” and “Slavic” aspects of a politically confected holiday emphasizes “Slavic unity” and Russia’s civilizational role as a “protector of true values and purity.”
All of which may give the impression that Putin’s Russia is a humorless authoritarian state worrying that its flimsy ideology is no more robust than its Soviet predecessor. It too spent vast time and effort seeking to insulate itself from the more vigorous popular culture of its main opponent. And failed.
Elena Davlikanova is a Democracy Fellow with the Center for European Policy Analysis. Her work is focused on analyzing opportunities for Ukraine-Russia reconciliation with regard to fascism and totalitarianism in Russia and their effects on Russia. She is an experienced researcher, who in 2022 conducted the studies “The Work of the Ukrainian Parliament in Wartime” and “The War of Narratives: The Image of Ukraine in Media.”
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.