The last days of the year are particularly significant and hold lots of expectations. New Year’s Eve comes and takes us away from running daily errands, frees from worries and argues, fills our hearts with unexplainable anticipation of a miracle and hopes for a better year to come. It’s time to consider what the past year has brought, the achievements and changes made, as well as think over what should the new one look like and which steps to take next. Russia is no exception, and there is a number of fascinating traditions connected with this time. Let’s take a closer look: here’s your guide to how Russians celebrate and what all those weird activities, dishes names and noisy get-togethers have behind them.
To begin with, Christmas is of a considerably less importance than the New Year’s Day (NYD) due to the soviet past and heritage. Aimed at eradicating religious beliefs and traditions, Bolsheviks banned celebrating Christmas and proclaimed January 7 a regular workday in 1929. Specially organized squads were patrolling streets and looking at windows to spot any signs of preparation for the forbidden activity. Nowadays everything is different, the holiday is back as a national one with a day-off and cute Christmas cards, yet NWD is still celebrated on a larger scale.
The tradition to mark the end of the year on January 1 and the annual holiday itself were established by Peter the Great in 1699 through one of his reforms. The celebration lasted for 7 days in Moscow in 1700 with the house-owners putting pine or fir trees in front of their houses and gates, tar barrels lit up every night, rockets launched and 200 cannons shooting in front of the Kremlin. Germany was a role model for all these activities. The holiday had been celebrated in this way for several centuries until it was banned following the October Revolution. Still, the custom was reverted in 1935, and by the way it was not until the USSR times when the holiday grew in popularity and turned into a nation-wide one.
NYD today is lots of fun, snow, exuberance, food and family reunions. And it lasts quite long, with 10 day-offs, school vacation and many Russians keeping celebrating till January 14 (the Old New Year in the Orthodox Calendar). Russia spans 11 time zones, so when the clock chimes 12 in Vladivostok, people in Moscow have another 7 hours to finish chopping salads. Thanks to time differences, the arrival of a new year is celebrated 9 times there! It is a really impressive huge event and a great occasion to have the whole family under one roof. Preparations start long in advance: people plan activities for the night, think over the dishes and hunt for presents. Stores are filled with New Year greeting cards and souvenirs in the form of or with a picture of the symbol of the year according to the Chinese Zodiac. Hardly any sphere of social life remains unaffected and not involved in the festive activities. The decorations and fir trees are put all over the cities, in all public facilities and workplaces. Children in junior school and kindergartens prepare small handmade gifts for parents and have fun at NWD parties with Father Frost and Snow Maiden where they are given sweet gifts – boxes full of candies and chocolates – for singing, dancing, and reciting poems. The schools close for winter vacation around December 25 to welcome children back after January 7.
Over the course of time, the old Russian, German and Western customs blended together to create a distinctive and exciting tradition with a set of peculiar elements. And the most important is, of course, Ded Moroz (Father Frost), a while-haired and bearded old man carrying a sack of gifts, and his charming companion, Snegurochka (Snow Maiden). Children are told that Ded Moroz brings presents to those who behave well and do not argue with parents, and they write letters to him specifying what exactly they would like to receive. Pine trees smell and tangerines, Champaign and Olivier salad are strongly associated with the changing of years and bring about happy memories from childhood. Since Eldar Ryazanov directed The Irony of Fate in 1976, no New Year’s Eve has passed without the whole country watching and rewatching it – and several other movies – without ever getting bored. Hardly anyone can imagine this occasion without those films.
Family get-togethers and exhilarating parties, going out and meeting neighbors, as well as gathering at the main square in practically every town to enjoy concerts and fireworks at the stroke of midnight are among favorite activities. People have fun all night and try not to fall asleep as it would be considered a bad omen. At 23:55 every year, the President speaks to the nation, and people gather around the abundant table. Festive dishes are something out of this world. The hostess does her best to impress the guests and make everyone satisfied by the food. To please her, guests try to taste every dish and express their enjoyment. The famous Olivier Salad (canned peas, chopped boiled potatoes, carrots, eggs, sausages, marinated cucumbers and mayonnaise sauce) and Shuba (pickled herring, beats, potatoes, carrots, eggs and onions arranged in layers and smeared with mayo), baked meat and potatoes, pickled vegetables, petite sandwiches (like brown bread, butter and caviar), kholodets (jellied meat) and cakes as dessert – not only for the sake of indulgence as all of them symbolize prosperity in the new year.
Making wishes is another part of the night. Write down a wish on a piece of paper, burn it, put the ashes into the glass of Champaign and drink it. If you want the wish to come true, make sure you do all this while the clock strikes twelve. If you do not feel so ambitious, simply make a wish without drinking the ashes.
People in Russia say ‘S nastupayuschim!’ or ‘S Novim Godom!’ much often than ‘Hi!’ this time of the year, so if you are going to visit the country and see all those festivities for yourself, it would not hurt to learn the phrases and respond with a beaming smile.
This exhilarating frenzy is certainly one of Russia’s most beloved holidays and the best time to pay a visit to the country and experience its culture. Wonderful atmosphere, delicious food and the feeling of some change in life inspire and encourage to have a few adventures. And it is the time of the year when people are smiling even in this country. Thousands of people will be celebrating with parties, presents and food, so just make sure you finish the year strong.
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