New Year's Eve: The Biggest Celebration for the Post-Soviets
Updated: Dec 6, 2022
Noviy God [New Year] - the biggest celebration in the USSR and now in the post-Soviet world. It was the one night of the year when proletarian families felt bourgeois, with the Soviet Champagne, crystal glasses and fancy silverware dugout for the special occasion.
A Soviet New Year’s Eve table was filled with the so-called ‘deficit’ - products that people could not get due to the shortage for most of Soviet history and later could not afford due to the collapsed economy. Among the festive treats were/are the legendary salads of olivier (a fancy potato salad with carrots, eggs, staple green peas, mayo and sausage), selyodka pod shuboy (aka 'herring in fir coat' - a long story, I will make a post about soon) and vinaigrette (beetroot salad), oranges, mandarines, cheese, fish, chicken, etc., etc.
Why did the atheists in the USSR decorated fir trees in December? Who delivered the gifts - Santa or KGB? Would communist kids get presents or just coal?
The New Year celebration as we know it today in the post-Soviet space is a result of a combination of traditions and compromise.
The German tradition of tree decoration was brought to Russia by Peter the Great. After the Revolution of 1917, this Tzarist/Religious/Burgeios celebration was put in question and was not celebrated for 30 years. In the post-World War II USSR, celebrating the New Year became a norm, a type of omen of the fact that life became better, with room for joy and fun. Elements of celebrating Christmas were merged with New Year festivities. Since Orthodox Christmas is celebrated in January and is a purely religious holiday, gift exchanges became part of the New Year’s Eve.
A mythical Ded Moroz [Father Frost] rewards kids who climb on the stool and recite a short holiday-themed poem. An interesting fact about Ded Moroz is that he has a granddaughter - Snegurochka - but no other known relatives.
When the USSR collapsed, some Central Asian states, such as Uzbekistan, once again questioned the necessity of celebrating the New Year on 31 December, given the presence of the "Persian New Year" Nowruz celebrated in March. After a period of an identity crisis, December festivities resumed and became encouraged by the state.
It was a celebration of hopes - the one day in the year when even the jaded adults turned into kids and anticipated miracles.
Dedicated post-Soviet people even celebrate the ‘Old New Year’ on 13 January in accordance with the pre-Bolshevik Julan calendar. Only after this final note, the tree can be taken down, although many keep them up until February.
December: The anticipation of magic
Millions of Soviet families living in millions of identical ‘khruschyovka’ apartment boxes, would bust out their identical Christmas trees (or, rather New Year fir trees) manufactured in the same factory, likely named after Lenin, and the sacred ritual would begin.
Things made for ‘at home assembly’ in the USSR required several additional manipulations before one could start enjoying them. The country said a definite ‘Nyet!’ to the instant capitalist joys. Our father would bring his toolkit from the balcony and after an hour or so, our plastic urban beauty would be ready for decoration.
Only years later, I realised that the magical chest in which our New Year tree toys were stored was a mere shoebox.
Fragile glass toys, icicles, figures and animals of all shapes and imagination bursts lived next to the older generation of toys made of very simple materials but of complicated shapes from ballerinas to elephants. We didn’t have any particular ritual such as which toy goes up first or who gets to hang it. The tree sort of decorated itself. Then it came time for the lights.
1, 2, 3...Yolochka gori! [1, 2, 3...Light up the tree!]
Again, this would require some investigative capacities akin to those of Hercule Poirot, as any little lightbulb that was out on the chain would need to be replaced before the damn thing would light up. Another hour later, the tree is dressed and lit! I could stare at it for hours before bed and every morning would run up to it to enjoy it once again and to check whether anything magical appeared beneath.
The New Year’s night was filled with surprises and magic. You never knew who would come through your door.
Neighbours in possession of a costume would dress as Ded Moroz and stop by to eat and drink.
The most vivid memory of the 1990s is when one morning I ran up to the tree to find my favourite at the time Twix chocolate bars hanging on it. This was an impossible miracle. Sadly, the economy in the country where apartments sold for 200 USD was in such a condition that heavily advertised Western chocolate bars, targeting kids, of course, were in the ‘luxurious’ category.
Sometimes several Ded Morozes would come by on New Year's eve. They would lift their fake beards to eat and take shots. I knew they were not real and was waiting for the real one to come when everyone is asleep.
Mid-night. Wake the mother up. Presidential address (for some reason, the one in Russia). Count-down. Wishes are written on paper, set on fire and devoured with Champagne. Fireworks all around. Uraaaa. New year. New beginnings. New hopes.