Happy New Year, Merry Christmas, and…Happy New Year?
Text Joshua Abrams
So you’re new to Russia and see your local friends preparing for the winter holiday season. The tinsel and decorated trees are similar to what you’d see back home, although you notice Santa Claus looks different – skinny and tall, and accompanied by a fetching young blonde, rather than old Mrs. Claus. You also notice that the holiday calendar is off – rather than Christmas on December 25, followed by New Year’s eve on the 31st, the Russians seem to be doing it backwards, with Christmas following the New Year, on January 8th. Stranger still, the calendar shows Christmas being followed by a holiday called the Old New Year.
What’s going on, here?
No, you haven’t passed through the Looking Glass; you just need a little schooling in the history and traditions of Russia’s winter holidays.
Pre-revolutionary Russia celebrated Christmas on December 25st, as do all other Christian countries, the only catch being that the Tsars used the Julian calendar, which is thirteen days behind the Gregorian calendar, the one now common around the world. The Bolsheviks switched to the Gregorian calendar in 1918 as part of their push into modernity, but the Russian church held on to Julian time-keeping as the liturgical measure of days. Christmas remained where it always was for Russians, except now it fell on January 7, after the new, secular year had passed.
Not that the atheist Soviet state had much use for Christmas. After the 1917 revolution, the Bolsheviks consigned the festival to the dust-bin of history. Though many chose to mark Christmas with quiet celebrations at home, or furtive visits to church, New Year’s eve was the sole official winter holiday for most of the twentieth century. Christmas was only officially reinstated in the 1990s, after the Bolsheviks took its place in the dust-bin. The long (some would say overlong) winter vacation stretching between December 31 and January 7 was only legislated for in 2005.
The New Year holiday season is, therefore, relatively new. Much of it is a combination of new and old traditions – preand post-revolutionary, pagan, Christian, and proletarian – with a modern dash of oil-boom flair. Much that was forgotten is being rediscovered, though the simple family gathering on New Year’s Eve still remains the central event of the season. The Russian holidays are high on warmth and family spirit, making it one of the best times to familiarize yourself with the country.
Unlike the West, where December 31 is usually met with parties and carousing, in Russia this is the most intimate of holidays, a time for family and friends, celebrated at home rather than on the street. The festive table is filled to overflowing with traditional salads, like olivier and vinagrette, and the ever-popular seld’ pod shuboi, or “herring in a coat”, a concoction of herring, potato, beets, and carrots lathered in mayonnaise. Platefuls of cold cuts and cheeses are important, as are steaming meat dumplings, or pelmeny.
In Soviet days, mandarin oranges had pride of place on the table, exotic for their rarity in winter, and a sign of optimism that warmer months were soon to come. To this day, many Russians associate mandarins with the New Year, and will have them on their holiday table. If you want to make a good impression on your hosts, you can bring a bagful of mandarins with you as a gift.
Be sure to plan for a long night on December 31st, and have a snack in the early evening before you head to your party. The New Year’s feast only begins at midnight, with a toast of Soviet Champagne (Soviet “Sparkling Wine” to the French copyright hawks). The meal, and the toasts, will continue through the night and into the morning. The feasting may be interrupted by a group jaunt out onto the street, or by a spontaneous group disco in the living room. In keeping with the family spirit, telephone lines throughout the country will light up, as relatives call one another to wish them a happy New Year.
For children, New Year’s Eve is as big a holiday as Christmas is in the West. All of December is filled with anticipation, with special events in schools, theaters and on television, leading up to the visit by Dyed Moroz, Grandfather Frost, the Russian Santa Claus, on December 31. Adults will often arrange a visit by Ded Moroz himself – usually one of the parents, more than a little drunk, in a fake beard and bathrobe – who will distribute presents to all the children, or will leave them beneath the New Year’s tree.
Much as for Christmas in the West, Russians will decorate their homes and offices for New Year’s eve with a yolka, or New Year’s tree. The yolka was originally imported from northern Europe by Peter the Great in the seventeenth century, and then refashioned in the 1930s as a proletarian symbol of the new, secular New Year holiday, with a Soviet red star on the top.
More important than the yolka, however, is the television. Most homes will have the TV on throughout the day, and into the night. They will time their midnight toast to the Kremlin chimes, and will ignore but appreciate the brief speech that all Russian leaders have given in the five minutes before midnight since Soviet times. As a famous Russian cartoon says, “There is no New Year’s eve without television.”
Television’s real importance on this night is in broadcasting Russia’s most beloved holiday film, The Irony of Fate, or, Have a Good Bath. This 1975 romantic comedy is the indispensable New Year’s film, an omnipresent feature on television, watched over and over again before, during and after December 31, and whose oft-repeated lines and images are as much part of the holiday feel as the yolka and tinsel.
The film moves from high comedy to an introspective love story, with lovely, sentimental ballads interwoven throughout. But it is perhaps the intimate feel of the movie that appeals to viewers most. Much of the action takes place in a snug Soviet apartment that could be anywhere in Russia, decorated for the holiday, much as any home would be. (It also revolves around drunk men, another feature common on this night!) The film’s warmth and tenderness reflect the mood of the holiday.
The New Year party can be, for the uninitiated, an endurance test, as the drinking and eating last through the night and into the morning. New Year’s Eve bleeds into New Year’s day, also known as Den’ Pokhmeliya, or “Hangover Day”. Additional New Year’s delicacies such as kholodets and rassol, or aspic and pickle juice, are perfect for whipping the alcohol sickness, but this day is still best spent sleeping off the night before and watching Irony of Fate yet again.
Until the 1990s the holiday season ended here, but with the revival of traditional observance, the importance of Russian Christmas has been growing. A much older holiday than its secular replacement, Christmas is of course much richer in history, with observances dating back to pre-Christian rituals. At the same time, it is also less well known, much having been forgotten during those seventy years in the dustbin. Today, most Russians will celebrate Christmas with a festive meal, and many may go to church, but how closely the traditions are followed will vary from family to family. Depending on how observant your friends are, Christmas may simply be another excuse for a herring and mayonnaise salad with friends, or it may involve fasting, prayer, and special foods.
For the more religious, Christmas preparations may begin with fasting for a full 39 days before the holiday, culminating in a Lenten feast on Christmas Eve. Fasting during these days involves refraining from certain foods, particularly meat, and ending a complete fast on January 6th when the first star is visible in the sky. The first star symbolizes the Star of Bethlehem, and signals the beginning of the meal.
Christmas supper is a meatless, twelve-course feast in which every crumb holds significance. The twelve courses symbolize the Twelve Apostles, and may include a porridge of grains and honey called sochivo or kutya, which was traditionally eaten communally, from a single dish. It also provides for one of the holiday’s more interesting rituals, especially if you like playing with your food. Some families will throw a spoonful of kutya onto the ceiling. If it sticks, then the coming year will be lucky. If it doesn’t, you’d better hope you’re not sitting beneath it!
In Russian Orthodoxy the midnight mass is the central service of the holiday. Churches are filled with the deep resonance of the Slavonic liturgy and the smells of candles and incense. The service will also include the krestniy khod or holy walk, in which the whole congregation will join a procession around the outside of the church, holding candles or lanterns in the frigid night air.
The sacredness and solemnity of Russian Christmas gives way to other, older traditions that come directly out of the pre-Christian past. The pagans celebrated the winter solstice as the birth of the new solar year, worshipping the sun-goddess Kolyada, whose rays begin to shorten the long winter nights, with bonfires and carnivals.
These customs are still evident today. The practice of lighthearted celebration mark the week between Christmas and the Old New Year, a period known as svyatki. During this week you may see young people dressed up as animals, going from door to door to sing Christmas carols. This carolling, or kolyadki, is like a Christmastime trick-ortreating, with the carollers given animal-shaped cookies or coins. The songs are themselves are a mix of Christian and pagan, and mixed with wishes of good health and happiness to the listener.
Another svyatki practice coming out of the pre-Christian past is gadaniya, or fortune-telling. Used to predict harvests and other life cycles, gadaniya eventually evolved into a simpler set of “games” for girls to guess about whom they would marry. There are many different ways to read fortunes, from the simple to the arcane, and girls often tried a different one each day until the new year.
If you are in need of a husband, you may want to try some of these methods. You start off simply, by placing four playing cards beneath your pillow; your future husband will appear in your dreams as the King. You can also try running out onto the street and asking the first passer-by his name; the name he gives will be that of the man you will marry. If there are no passers-by, then listen for a dog barking; wherever the barking is coming from will be the direction your fiance will come.
Among the more arcane practices: stand two large mirrors opposite one another and light a candle between them. This will form the illusion of a long, dark corridor, before which you must stand and stare until an image of some sort appears in the reflections – the image will provide clues about your Mr. Right.
If you are the parent of several daughters, give each an onion to plant in the garden. The order in which they sprout will show the order that each daughter will get married. Or give them all some seeds and bring a hungry chicken among them. Whoever’s seeds are eaten first will be the first one to find a husband.
There are many more practices to try that will keep you guessing about your chances at the altar, but you need to be careful when you do them. Gadaniye is preferably done at night, and often in the banya, or Russian sauna, as these are considered “dark arts” and need to be kept hidden from the light of day.
Svyatki ends on January 14, the Old New Year, also known as the Feast of St. Basil, Vasiliev Den’. The origins of this holiday are also in the pagan past, beginning as a day of worship of Avsen, the god of the new year and the birth of Spring. Avsen figures in many of the kolyadki sung by carollers, though he was replaced by St. Basil as the object of reverence after Russia adopted Christianity. The basic customs for the day remained even after the switch, however. First is the feast, also Lenten, and based around porridge, which symbolizes fertility for the land. Visits among friends and family also remain an important part of this holiday, and tradition has it that any fortune telling done on this day has special force.
For most modern Russians, the Old New Year is simply a repetition of the first, although more low-key. Many of the Old New Year observances were transferred to the new date when the calendar was changed, so there is very little that actually distinguishes the two New Years, outside of the religious significance. Besides, by the time January 14th rolls around, the country has just come out of nearly two weeks of straight revelry. There is the same joy and warmth, with Irony of Fate on the television and pickle juice waiting for the morning after, but by then it’s almost a postscript to a long holiday season. Just as well that the official holiday ends just after Christmas, and doesn’t stretch all the way to January 14th. After all, we need to rest as well as celebrate.
There is one more modern twist to the whole Russian holiday season, and that’s the Western Christmas on December 25th. Russian Christmas may be in January, but the Western date has also become popular since the 1990s as an unofficial, “imported” holiday, much as Halloween and St. Valentine’s Day are. Many young Russians now appreciate the earlier Noel as a reason to begin partying even earlier.
Regardless, nothing is likely to supplant the importance of New Year’s Eve. The sense of family and commonality are what give it its universal appeal across this vast country. It is non-sectarian, nonpolitical, and egalitarian in a way that Men’s Day or Women’s Day are not. So get ready to drink a lot, eat a lot, and watch a lot of the same reruns on TV, because you’re in for a long, but fun, holiday season!