It’s beginning to look a lot like… New Year!
It’s beginning to look a lot like… New Year!
So December is well underway and that means one thing: Christmas! Except, Christmas isn’t quite the same over here in Russia. First of all, they celebrate New Year (Новый год), a tradition that is a remnant of the atheist Soviet state. Christmas, which falls on the 7th January in the Orthodox Christian calendar, remains an important date for religious Russians, but the big event of the festive season that gathers families and friends and gets the kids (both big and small) excited takes place from the 31st December, as we say goodbye to the old year and welcome the new.
Of course, the build-up starts way before the end of December, with shops stocking up early with decorations and seasonal food. New Year trees (which still sounds strange to me) are put up in mid-December, though it seems that they rarely get taken down again before spring arrives! Most families have a set of traditional glass decorations, and vintage Soviet ornaments are particular favourites amongst locals and tourists alike. Any babushkas prepared to part with their vintage glass cosmonauts can fetch a pretty price at a flea market. So the tree is up and the decorations have been stapled to the ceiling – what else do Russians do to get themselves in the spirit? Ice-skating is certainly one way and cities across Russia become littered with temporary rinks, set up with extravagant decorations and inventive themes. Another great way to get your fair share of festive fun is to watch seasonal films such as The Irony of Fate (Ирония судьбы) and Carnival Night (Карнивальная ночь) or, if you’re lucky, to get hold of some tickets for a night at the ballet to see The Nutcracker (Щелкунчик).
On 31st December itself, families and friends get together at home and enjoy a feast of Russian salads and other dishes at 9 or 10 o’clock in the evening. If there’s no Olivier Salad (оливье) or Dressed Herring (селёдка под шубой) or mandarins, it isn’t New Year at your house! With toasts and good wishes (and champagne) aplenty, I can only imagine that New Year’s Eve around the table with Russians is quite the knees-up, as even a simple Sunday meal here can quickly become a party.
The President of the Russian Federation makes his speech at 23:55 and it is broadcast on every single television channel (no, this isn’t a joke!) before the cameras focus on the Kremlin’s main clock tower on Red Square, Spasskaya Bashnya (Спасская башня). That is when the kuranty (куранты), or chiming of the clock begins, and Russians start their countdown to the New Year. Actually, I guess it is more accurate to say countup, as Russians start from one and count the strikes up to twelve. By the twelfth dong it is imperative that you should have popped open the champagne and are ready for what quite frankly sounds like a logistical nightmare when you’re already full of food and wine; the tradition goes that you should write down your New Year’s wish on a piece of paper, burn it, drop the ashes and remnants into your champagne glass and down the lot… Quite an achievement in the space of 12 seconds, wouldn’t you agree?!
For many, now is present-opening time and people go out on to the street to wish their neighbours a Happy New Year (С новым годом!) and to watch or set off fireworks. Littluns often wait for the morning to open their presents, as Ded Moroz (Дед Мороз – literally Old Man or Grandfather Frost), the Russian Father Christmas, will deliver them overnight with the help of his granddaughter Snegurochka (Снегурочка), the snow maiden. The celebrations and fireworks continue into the early hours of the morning; I have been assured that it is quite the challenge to fall asleep for those that want to hit the hay early.
On the first day of the New Year, Russia sleeps. Even Moscow could be likened to a ghost town. Everything is closed except for parks and ice rinks, so those that can bear the daylight (or indeed those who didn’t drink too much) can be found skating and frolicking, should the weather be kind. Many continue to visit friends and distant relatives over the following few days, and all are faced with finishing off the leftovers. Christmas itself soon arrives on the 7th January, and those that choose to mark it may have a family meal or even attend a local midnight mass service, the most famous of which is held in the Cathedral of Christ Our Saviour in Moscow by Patriarch Kirill and is broadcast live across the country.
Unfortunately, shortly after this the cogs of the cities begin to turn again and before you know it, Russia is as busy as it was before the New Year. So the decorations may stay up a lot longer than in the UK, and snowy weather and ice rinks make the jolliness of the festive period tangible way past the end of January, but New Year passes in the blink of an eye all the same, much like everywhere else. But sometimes a snatch of madness and magic is all it takes to give you the most lasting memories, if also the most impressive weight gain.
Ellie, currently studying Russian at Liden & Denz Moscow