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How the Russian New Year stole Christmas

By Leah Cohill
Illustration by Lotte Timmermans

If you were to ask a Russian person what they associate New Year’s Eve with, the answer would probably be: family gatherings, fireworks, presents, and a lot of homemade food – everything that a Westerner would usually associate with Christmas. In Russia though, the jolly man with a red nose and a wooden staff, known as Ded Moroz (Father Frost), does not give presents on December 25th, nor does he on January 7th, the date of the Orthodox Christmas.

Rather, he drops by on New Year’s Eve and is typically accompanied by his granddaughter Snegurochka (the Snow Maiden). The reason why Ded Moroz brings presents during New Year instead of Christmas is because Christmas celebrations were banned during the Soviet period, leaving Russians to combine traditional Christmas customs with New Year’s Eve.

As a result, in today’s Russia it is New Year that is one of the most important holidays, trumping Christmas in significance. There are several things that make up for a Russian New Year’s celebration that one needs to keep in mind, or else it isn’t a proper Russian New Year’s.

Christmas trees were banned shortly after the Bolshevik revolution but were reintroduced as the Novogodnaya Yolka (New Year’s tree) in 1935 as a secular holiday symbol. Typically, the New Year’s celebrations begin with decorating the yolka on December 31st followed by thorough mental and physical preparation for a long night. Presents are wrapped, food is prepared, and alcohol is stacked. Though one must know, a Russian New Year just isn’t New Year without salads.

The most well known Russian salad is the Olivie, which is not just a light green salad but a vegetable oriented, mayonnaise-infused work of art. It typically involves carrots, apples, some type of meat (mainly chicken), potatoes, eggs, topped off with any vegetable you can find in the fridge. The salad is usually accompanied with red caviar served on buttered bread.

If you have that on the table with a bottle of champagne then you can officially start the feast. Watching the movie “The Irony of Fate, or Enjoy Your Bath!” is another inevitable part of Russia’s New Year tradition. It is a film that you will probably stumble upon when scrolling through the tv channels on a New Year’s Eve.

It is a story of a young guy named Zhenya Lukashin who after some heavy drinking accidentally ends up on a flight to St. Petersburg where he mistakenly breaks into a stranger’s flat thinking he is entering his apartment in Moscow, and finds the love of his life. It’s a must see for those who really want to embrace the Russian New Year spirit and familiarise themselves with the ambiguity of the Russian culture.

After you’ve had some food and watched a couple of traditional New Year’s films it is time to pour a glass of champagne and prepare for the midnight date with Putin. Before the clock strikes 12, all the family members gather together around the television to greet the New Year by listening to the President’s speech, after which the national anthem plays and fireworks burst into the air.

The New Year has officially begun. For Russians, New Year’s Eve is a family celebration that involves raising a glass to say goodbye to the passing year, phone calls to relatives and friends with wishes for the upcoming year, and the never ending consumption of the Olivie salad.

Also, New Year’s never goes without raising a toast. So I raise my early New Year’s toast to the irony of fate thanks to which all the exciting changes in our lives occur.

In order to truly understand how much the celebration of the New Year means to Russians one must go and experience it themselves considering that the best part of the Russian New Year is the week you have to recover from the hangovers before getting back to work.

And if you ever want to send a letter to Ded Moroz his exclusive address is: Ded Moroz, Ded Moroz’ House, Veliky Ustyug, 162390 Vologodskaya Oblast, Russia.

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