MOSCOW, Jan 7 (AFP) - Russia shut down Monday for a mixture of religious devotion and outdoor celebrations marking the Orthodox Christmas as President Vladimir Putin hailed the church's efforts to revive Russia's spiritual heritage.

Long shunned under Communism, the January 7 festivity has rapidly regained its former eminence as one of the year's religious high points, and the country's political and cultural elite were out in force at the midnight mass celebrated in Moscow's Christ the Saviour Cathedral.

Three thousand faithful turned out to hear Orthodox patriarch Alexei II lead the ceremony.

Putin chose to spend Christmas eve visiting some of the ancient towns that form part Moscow's Golden Ring and are associated with the foundation of Christianity in Russia and the creation of the Russian state.

He attended a late night service in the Uspensky Cathedral at Vladimir, 250 kilometres (150 miles) east of the capital.

In his Christmas message, the head of state highlighted the church's role in "strengthening, together with ... other traditional religions, the spiritual health of our compatriots, developing patriotism, and promoting civil peace and concord."

Social growth and "the successful achievement of the tasks our country faces will be impossible without this centuries-old domestic spiritual and cultural heritage," the former KGB chief said.

Services were held in most of Russia's 14,000 Orthodox churches and 569 monasteries, both on Sunday and on the feast day itself.

For the great majority of Russians, Christmas is a family affair and many Russians, particularly in the provinces, traditionally spend part of the day outdoors, taking sweets and cakes to neighbours, strolling in what has turned out one of the whitest Christmases in years, or sleighing, tobogganing or watching folk-dancing.

The extreme cold -- temperatures in Moscow plummeted overnight Sunday from close to zero to minus 20 Celsius -- was not expected to deter them from their post-prandial excursion, considered a useful antidote to over-indulgence at the table.

Theoretically Orthodox believers have been fasting since late November, avoiding meat, wine and dairy products, and among the traditional Christmas dishes on which they can be expected to have dined at length are stuffed duck with abricots and prunes, stuffed carp, pig's trotters in aspic, and rice pudding.

There are also a variety of traditional recipes to overcome hangovers, ranging from cold-showers to regular doses of a honey-based concoction.

With the working week due to resume Tuesday, the demand for honey was likely to rise sharply later in the day.

But the celebratory cycle launched on New Year's Eve will not be completed even then.

On January 14, the Russians' Old New Year -- another inheritance from the Julian calendar retained by the Orthodox church when its Catholic and Protestant counterparts opted for the Gregorian in 1582 -- provides another chance for extensive feasting and imbibing.

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