New Year's Eve: The Biggest Celebration for Post-Soviets
Noviy God [New Year] - the biggest celebration in the USSR and post-Soviet world. The one night in the year when proletariat families felt true bourgeois, with Champagne, crystal glasses and fancy silverware, both of which were dug out only once a year.
A New Year’s eve table was filled with foods that people could not afford in their everyday lives - staple salads, different types of signature dishes, cheese, cold cuts, fish, chicken, etc., etc. Aside from the obvious suspects such as mandarines, some of the items that were in deficit and considered a delicacy may sound absurd - green peas and sprats in tin cans.
How is it so that atheists in the USSR decorated fir trees in December? Who delivered the gifts - Santa or KGB? Would communist kids get presents or just coal?
All these and other questions are legitimate, as the New Year celebration as we know it today in the post-Soviet space is a combination of traditions that evolved through centuries.
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 post-WWII 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.
A mythical Ded Moroz [Father Frost] would deliver gifts and grant them to any kid who would 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, questioned the necessity of celebrating the New Year as we knew it. After a period of an identity crisis, celebrations resumed and became encouraged by the state.
While the rulers were deciding on the matter, people continued celebrating in their homes as the holiday was of utmost significance for the widest masses.
It was a celebration of hopes - the one day in the year when even the jaded adults turned into kids and anticipated miracles.
People even celebrated the ‘Old New Year’ according to the pre-Bolshevik Julan calendar on 13 January. Only after this final note, the tree could be taken down, although many kept them up until February.
December. The anticipation of magic.
Millions of Soviet families living in millions of identical ‘khruschevka’ 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 ‘NO!’ 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 - ballerinas and all. 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.
They would lift their fake beards in the process. I knew they were not real and was waiting for the real one to come. 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 chocolate bars, targeting kids, of course, were in the ‘luxurious’ category.
Mid-night. Wake the mother up. Presidential address. Count-down. Wishes are written on paper, set on fire and devoured with Champagne. Fireworks all around. Uraaaa. New year. New beginnings. New hopes.