How to Celebrate New Year's Like a Russian
No holiday induces the same carnivalesque frenzy as the Russian New Year, which is a combination of Christmas, New Year’s and Winter Solstice traditions fused together with maudlin nostalgia for the Soviet Union.
It's truly an experience, and it's probably the best time to visit Russia. But in case you're still saving up for those transatlantic plane tickets, here's a sneak peek of Russia's most beloved holiday.
New Year's History in Russia
This holiday dates back to the third millennium BC and was known to the people of ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, Rome, Persia and China.
In Russia, it was traditionally associated with spring and renewal, so until the 15th century, it was celebrated on March 1. Then the date moved to September 1, and finally, to January 1, when czar Peter the Great decided to drastically westernize Russia. At that point, it wasn't the major celebration it is today.
During the communist era (1917–1990s), all religious holidays were banned, so Christmas was no more, and even New Year's fell by the wayside. But the communists soon realized that while you can stomp out religion by destroying temples and sacred texts, you can't just as easily take away people's favorite holidays and traditions. So the compromise was to resurrect New Year's as a secular holiday that would perpetuate old Christmas traditions without the religious mumbo-jumbo.
Today, New Year's has the status of the holiday supreme and is celebrated for at least 2 weeks (December 31–January 14). Every major city has New Year festivals, concerts, fairs and other celebratory events. The streets are transformed with trees, lights and decorations.
And every year at 23:55 pm, the President addresses the nation.
Russian New Year's Traditions and Beliefs
Every Russian knows this New Year's axiom:
The way you meet the new year is the way you will spend it ("Как Новый год встретишь, так его и проведешь.").
As a result, many Russian holiday traditions are derived from that belief. For example:
- New Year's Day has to be joyous and festive, free from worries and arguments. Forgive those who've wronged you, repay your debts, clean the house. This way, you will start the new year with a clean slate.
- In addition to cleansing the soul and the house, it's customary to purify the body. For that reason, on December 31, many Russians go to banya (Russian saunas) or at least take a hot bath.
- The holiday feast is not just for indulgence's sake. It's believed that an abundant table with the best variety of dishes and refreshments symbolizes prosperity and well-being in the coming year. If the food is scarce and ordinary, the year will be "famished."
- It's also a bad omen to sleep through New Year's—then the year will be "sleepy" and uneventful.
- To properly meet the new year, you have to say goodbye to the old year. So before midnight, usually around 10 pm, everyone gathers at the table to discuss the year that's ending, to revisit its best moments, and to wish each other good luck and new achievements in the coming year.
- It's also believed that to honor the new year, it's best to wear new clothes, or at least new underwear. That's why underwear, socks, t-shirts etc. are popular presents.
- When the clock starts striking midnight at the Kremlin's Spasskaya Tower, it's time to toast with champagne and make wishes. To make sure that the wish comes true, you need to write it down on a scrap of paper, burn it, throw the ashes into the champagne glass and drink it—all before the clock strikes 12!
How to Say "Happy New Year!" in Russian
- “S novym godom!” or
- “S prazdnikom!” (“Happy holiday!”) or
- “S nastupayushchim!” (“Happy upcoming year!”)
- Reply: “I vas takzhe!” (And you too!)
Ded Moroz (The Russian Spin on Santa Claus)
Ded Moroz (Grandpa Frost) is another version of the legendary Saint Nicholas a.k.a. Santa Claus, Father Christmas, Pere Noel, Kris Kringle, Joulupukki, etc.
But unlike Santa, Ded Moroz doesn't ride reindeer or slide down the chimney or live with Mrs. Claus and the elves at the North Pole.
Ded Moroz's marital status is unclear, but he does have a granddaughter, Snegurochka (Snow Maiden), and since 1998 he lives in the town of Veliky Ustyug, Vologda Oblast. On New Year's, people love to dress up as Ded Moroz and Snegurochka and walk the streets, spreading the cheer, good wishes and (sometimes) vodka shots.
To surprise and delight the kids, Russians actually invite people dressed as Ded Moroz and Snegurochka into their homes. The deal is that you get a present for reciting a poem, a song or a dance.
Traditional Russian New Year's Dishes
The Russian New Year's Eve feast is unthinkable without the traditional holiday salads "Olivier" and "Shuba."
Olivier resembles potato salad but with more ingredients. It's basically tradition, comfort and your childhood boiled, chopped and served with mayo.
Shuba (seledka pod shuboĭ in Russian), on the other hand, is a more nuanced dish, an acquired taste. You're either gonna love it or think it's the grossest thing in the world. Shuba is a combination of surprising ingredients (like pickled herring and beets) shredded, smeared with mayo and arranged like a layered cake. Hands down, it's my favorite dish in the world.
Russians also feast on
- pickled vegetables (cabbage, cucumbers, tomatoes),
- meat and potatoes (baked in the oven or fried),
- petite sandwiches with butter and red caviar,
- pelmeni (meat dumplings),
- Vinaigrette (beet salad),
- and kholodets (jellied meat)
. . . and wash it down with copious amounts of champagne and vodka. (Tip: It's a bad idea to mix the two.)
But wait, there's more: Chocolate candies, torte Napoleon and sweet succulent mandarins are the culmination of the festivities.
Films and Gala-Concerts
In a famous Russian cartoon "Zima v Prostokvashino" ("Winter Vacation in Prostokvashino"), postman Pechkin asks: "What is the main adornment of the holiday table?" and then answers his own question: "Television."
Along with holiday salads, decorating the tree (yolka) and drinking the champagne while the bells chime in the new year, watching special holiday programs on TV is an indispensable part of the New Year's celebration.
And I'm not just talking about gala-concerts with favorite pop stars enthusiastically lip-syncing their latest hits, or comedy shows, or yet another rendition of "The Nutcracker." I mean beloved Soviet films, and one film in particular: The Irony of Fate.
In the country where God was persona non grata, people believed in the magic of New Year's Eve. "The Irony of Fate" captures that magic in the most implausible but sweet and hopelessly romantic way.
The Irony of Fate Plot Summary
Every Russian knows the story: Nerdy doctor Zhenya from Moscow mistakenly enters a strange woman's apartment after (again, mistakenly) being put on a plane to Leningrad.
His key fits the lock, the building and the furniture look the same, and since Zhenya is heavily inebriated after going to banya with his buddies, he doesn't notice the small idiosyncrasies that would have told him that it's not his apartment. He also doesn't remember being on a plane, or at the airport.
The owner of the apartment, beautiful teacher Nadya, soon comes home to find a complete stranger asleep on her couch. Will she call the cops? Or will New Year's Eve work its magic on two Soviet citizens with identical apartments? Watch it to find out! The film is available with English subtitles.
Collection of New Year's Songs From Famous Russian Cartoons
No matter where you find yourself on New Year's Eve, I hope that you feel the joy and the magic of this unique holiday. I hope that you're optimistic about the future, and I hope you're with the people you love. As Russians say: The way you meet the new year is the way you will spend it. So Happy New Year!
New Year's Eve Poll
How do you like to celebrate New Year's Eve?
Questions & Answers
© 2015 Lana Adler