What do Russians celebrate this time of the year? Is it Christmas? Do we celebrate Christmas? We celebrate Christmas, right? Only, like, weirdly and later and all communistically, is it true? You have a guy at work named Sergei who said something to that effect. Do we, like, put up a tree? Will we mind if you say “Merry Christmas” to us? Sergei doesn’t mind. Can you say “Merry Christmas” to us?
Not only do Russians engage in celebrations this time of the year, they have invented them. And, rest assured, whatever it is you do, you do it wrong. OK, fine, Russians may have been copying you lately. They are currently well-educated in “ho-ho-ho-ing”, and Moscow office workers are learning the ritual of “sikret-santa”, and the resurgent Orthodox Church is harping on the necessity to fast in December and celebrate the birth of Iisus Khristos on January 8 with lots of prayer and anti-Semitism, but all of this is quite irrelevant to most Russians.
Because the only real holiday anyone knows or cares about in late December is the New Year. The secular, godless, multicultural, all-inclusive, gloriously drunk holiday when kids can stay up all night, presents are distributed, and citizens are allowed to harbor a fleeting hope that things might just change for the better with a flip of the calendar.
The New Year became Russia’s major holiday during Soviet times, when it was felt that completely depriving folks of reasons to celebrate was no longer prudent, and that the Soviet Constitution Day (December 30) just didn’t quite cut it as a merry enough occasion. The idea to celebrate the New Year instead of Christmas was such a smashing success that within a generation or two it was utterly ingrained in the Soviet psyche.
Here is a personal note… I was born on December 25, a date that has otherwise no significance to Soviet and Russian citizens. The following day, though, my grandma was informed by a neighbor that I was lucky enough to get born on the “German New Year.” Germans were stand-ins for random foreigners in Russia because, first of all, of course they were, and secondly, the word for “a German” (nemets) is cognate with the word for “mute” (nemoy) belying its original meaning as “someone who doesn’t have the good sense to speak our immensely easy language.” Anyway, “the German New Year” here simply means “whatever the hell foreigners celebrate in December.”
Whatever it is you guys celebrate, here is how we do it. On December 31, as humans were meant to.
The New Year’s Fir
The Russian tradition of celebrating New Year with decorating a fir tree indoors dates back thousands of years, probably, and has been copied by other cultures and holidays. Sadly, this occurred shortly before Russians invented copyright laws, so now everyone does it. Wrongly.
Of course, in the pre-revolutionary Russian Empire, the tree was coopted by the dark forces of organized religion and mounted (exclusively in rich houses) on January 7, which is when the true Russian Jesus was born by his absolutely non-Jewish mother. But the glorious Communist Revolution had dispensed with all that nonsense, and the tree got itself outlawed for a while, until the wise proletarian government revived the tradition for the secular New Year.
Traditionally, the fir is decorated with glass baubles as well as electric lights in honor of Vladimir Lenin’s glorious invention of the light bulb. Prior to that, many Russians would mount actual lit candles on it, because any new year could be your last one so what the hell. “Fir tree, ignite yourself!”, children yell at New Year parties, quoting the visionary Russian poet Alexander Pushkin who ingeniously predicted the triumph of the Socialist Revolution with his immortal verse: “A flame shall be ignited from a spark!” Every year, several Russian homes majestically burn down on New Year’s Eve from people’s taking these words too literally.
There’re many lovely songs about the New Year Fir being sung by children this time of the year. One of the more famous is “The Fir Was Born in a Forest” which relates a heart-warming story of a young tree’s coming of age, giving shelter to bunnies and getting covered with fluffy snow, before getting chopped down all the way to the root by a proletarian woodsman for our holiday amusement.
Most Russian New Year’s Fir trees, however, are made of incredibly life-like plastic, which showcase the strength of our industry and its triumph over the unforgiving nature. Every year, children and adults assemble these wonders on living room rugs, marveling at the human genius.
The ornaments, known as “fir toys”, include both the glass globes and other such trinkets familiar in the West, but also cosmonauts, Sputniks, peasant women, revolutionary sailors, village huts, tractors, and, because, Russians are all about realism, squirrels.
Tangerines are also often hung on the tree and then are consumed on New Year’s Eve. In the USSR, they’d only be available around this time of the year. Confused and delighted citizenry first used them as tree decorations until someone, c. 1972, figured out they could be eaten. This led to the monumental discovery, c. 1973, that they could also be fought over in food lines.
Usually, the tree is topped with a red star to honor the Red Army’s multiple victories, including singlehandedly winning World War II and saving the people of Korea from capitalist aggression.
Grandpa Frost, or Dedushka Moroz, is a mythical bearded giftman who makes his appearance on New Year’s Night, distributing presents to children who may or may not have studied the works of Vladimir Lenin with due diligence over the course of the year. Said diligence, as well as behavior appropriate to a fierce Russian patriot, are the determining factors in the children’s eligibility to receive free-of-charge presents from the terrible and magnanimous Grandpa. Other factors may involve school grades and manufacturing quotas.
Grandpa’s origins date back to ancient times, when he was one of the pagan Eastern Slavic gods, in charge of quaint Russian things like winter, snow, famine, and freezing to death.
Over the centuries, he has gradually morphed first into a fairy tale character and then into the Soviet-era New Year icon, persevering in the latter capacity to this day. Grandpa’s place in the holiday cannon was officially solidified by Joseph Stalin in the 1930s as the celebration of New Year was allowed again and a stern fatherly figure was deemed necessary.
Grandpa Frost wears a long fur-lined coat and a similarly manufactured hat. Unlike the sad American imitation Santa, who apparently has elves murder polar bears for the lining of his coat, Grandpa Frost does his animal-murdering himself, as attested by the club he also carries.
Children who haven’t behaved as becoming a Young Communist Pioneer over the course of the year are sometimes told that the club shall be used on them in lieu of the presents from Grandpa Frost’s bag. According to Grandpa himself, “whoever touches my staff, shall never wake up.”
Grandpa Frost’s preferred method of transportation is a decidedly ground-borne sleigh pulled by a team of three horses, though he isn’t above traveling on foot or by skis. He enters children’s homes proudly and directly, through a front door, occasionally bothering to knock.
Grandpa Frost’s facial expression is rarely jolly and usually conveys the message that Grandpa is not one to be screwed with. In almost all versions of the story his nose is pronouncedly red, which is attributed to both cold weather and habitual drinking.
Grandpa Frost is usually accompanied by a comely if frigid young woman named Snegurochka, or Snow Maiden. She is said to be his granddaughter, but as Frost is never reported to have had a wife or any children, the real nature of their relationship is mysterious and troubling.
In separate tales about the Snow Maiden’s origins, she is specifically stated to be a granddaughter of another, entirely human family. She is told to have lived a normal village life into her teens, until mysteriously disappearing one summer day. Now, she is seen in the company of a bearded man with a sack who offers gifts to children. Most Russians prefer not to think about this too much.
At New Year celebrations, Grandpa is known to sometimes lose the sight of Snegurochka (which may or may not be a failed escape attempt), prompting children to yell, “Sne-goo-roch-ka!” several times, until the Maiden is found and forced to perform for the children’s amusement.
In a beloved children’s fairy tale 12 Months by the Soviet writer Samuil Marshak, Grandpa Frost serves as judge, jury and executioner of three stepsisters and the stepmother of the primary character, making them freeze do death in the Russian forest. In another holiday classic, Morozko, Grandpa arranges a wedding of a village couple while humiliating the bride’s stepsister by making her ride a sleigh pulled with pigs. Grandpa clearly has issues with adoptive families, which explains several current Russian laws on the subject.
According to most legends, if Grandpa Frost finds a lost child in the forest, he immediately proceeds to test her (it’s usually a her) with freezing torture. Those who betray no agony and thank Grandpa for his warmth are given rewards. Weak whiners are left to die.
According to official Soviet mythology, Grandpa Frost fought valiantly for the Red Army during World War II, using his bag to distribute bombs, grenades, and torpedoes to the presumably naughty and immediately dead Germans, all while wearing the Soviet Navy striped shirt.
Grandpa Frost is beloved by Russian children of all ages. He maintains legal residence in the city of Veliky Ustyug, also known for its thriving wood-pellet manufacturing industry. Here is hoping Grandpa will bring you something nice this New Year! Speaking of which…
New Year Presents
It has come to our attention that the great Russian invention of holiday gift-giving has been appropriated by foreign cultures and expanded to the depths our financial fortitude and feelings of good-will toward fellow men could never hope to match. But however much money Yanks spend on Christmas shopping and however many people they fight on Black Friday, the quaint way in which New Year presents are given in Russian families perseveres.
Since nobody will ever prove otherwise, let us assume that the gift-giving tradition was originally introduced by the inventor of the Permanent Revolution Theory, Leon Trotsky, who saw it as a symbolic precursor of the ideal Communist society, where goods are given for free and each receives according to their contribution to society. The Russian word for “gift”, podarok, is thus cognate with the word for “free of charge”, darom, just so that everyone involved remains perfectly clear of the nature of the transaction.
“My best gift is you!”, sings a popular Russian cartoon character, Wolf, to another popular Russian cartoon character, Bunny, before attempting to devour said Bunny for his New Year’s dinner, a feat he is yet to accomplish after 40+ years of trying.
This immortal quote describes the spirit of New Year’s gift-giving perfectly. Of course, the best New Year gift is the traditional sweater, scarf, woolen hat or other articles of winter clothing, often presented to children on this wonderful occasion. These gifts are the result of the undying belief of most Russian grandmothers that their grandchildren are being routinely and criminally underdressed in the harsh Russian climate. It is also a matter of staunch belief among Russians that the perfect present should be immediately usable and immensely practical. That is why our New Year’s gift wraps contain 100% fewer garden gnomes and 100% more alcohol than any corresponding Christmas gift-containers in America.
Besides warm clothing, candy is a readily acceptable New Year’s gift for most children, books (especially on the assembly of portable radios) for nerdy children, toy soldiers for militaristic children, and candy filled with alcohol for children of all ages. Constructor sets are also given sometimes and immediately thrown away, because, seriously, come on! The luckier of us will occasionally score an article of hockey equipment, such as a wooden stick of an unnamed Soviet brand, which would later have to be subjected to thermal treatment behind the wall radiator to apply a curve to the blade. A goalie stick once found by me under my New Year’s Fir was made out of two pieces of wood and splintered most confoundingly.
Unlike in America, where, if your TV ads are to be believed, it’s traditional to present each other with bow-wrapped Lexuses, Russian New Year’s gifts rarely require one to sell their less-beautiful children into slavery. Gift cards and cash are also considered bad form. Russian women who do not receive French perfume for New Year are legally allowed to sneak non-lethal poison into their husbands’ borscht for the next 365 days. Russian women married to rich husbands are entitled to a fur coat and will accept no substitutes. Every Russian husband, however, is obligated to present his wife with at least 1 article of fur-lined winter clothing per 10 years of marriage, or it can be declared null and void. Men will often be satisfied with power tools, because in Russia the XX century has never ended.
Truly, the New Year’s gifts are the most anticipated part of the biggest holiday of the year. We should all be thankful to Russians for inventing them.
Not knowing much about American Christmas traditions, but judging from the bumper stickers alone, I assume food doesn’t really play an important part in your celebratory routine this time of the year. You probably spend the “holy day” in chaste contemplation and prayer, either fasting or moodily gnawing on unleavened bread. Or something. Rest assured, you’re doing it completely wrong. Russian New Year would’ve lost half of its appeal if it weren’t for the wonderful tradition of consuming special food on this, most special of all occasions.
This very website, of course, contains an entire series of posts (still ongoing) on Russian culinary traditions, but for those who are too lazy to click and criminally unwilling to spend 3-4 quality hours reading all of them, here is a very quick and barely adequate synopsis of the holiday meal.
And when it comes to the New Year menu, it always begins with the King of Food, the Olivier Salad, which, despite its name, has as much to do with France as winning World War II does. It is a merry mixture of potatoes, pickles, peas, carrots, sausage, hard-boiled eggs, industrial qualities of mayonnaise and emotional detachment. There isn’t a single Russian who doesn’t adore it, and the New Year’s Eve without it is a federal crime.
Other traditional New Year foods include “herring under a fur coat” (a layered salad of herring, beats, potatoes, and mayonnaise), vinaigrette salad (beats, pickles, potatoes, ABSOLUTELY NO vinegar), unborn pickled fetuses of sturgeon and/or salmon, and Russian chocolate candies of which you should only know one thing: they are the reason Switzerland is neutral and hiding in shame in its mountains.
“What is with all the potatoes and mayo?” you may ask. The answer is very simple: artichokes don’t grow in Russia and sour cream gets too boring eventually. Russians love mayo. They put it in everything, including soup. It’s the basis of all Russian salads and family life.
Here is the list of things you will NOT find at a Russian New Year table:
* non-mayo-based salads,
* anything in any way spicy or spicy-looking or able to be interpreted as potentially spicy.
Russians’ hatred and fear of spicy foods is at its peak on December 31.
What you will find at a Russian New Year table is a cake or a pie that will make you weep and renounce the Declaration of Independence. You have gotten democracy right, America (or so we all thought), but your cakes and pies are a abomination to nature and mankind. Hide them in shame. Now.
Russian New Year food is truly the best part of this best holiday ever. But it wouldn’t be nearly as good without its liquid companion.
I have often heard my American friends discuss something called “egg nog” in the context of drink-related holiday traditions but never bothered to investigate further. To me, it sounds like ill treatment of a Star Trek character, but whatevs. Guess it involves eggs in some way.
We also have an egg-based beverage, with a somewhat similar name, gogol-mogol. It is named after Nikolai Gogol, a famous XIX-century Ukrainian writer and an accomplished anti-Semite. His stinging satire, cautionary portrayals of demonic Jews and a slow decent into insanity have influenced Russian culture to no end. The drink, however, has no celebratory value and is used to treat common cold in small children. Of course, whatever it is you guys drink is of no consequence since it can’t possibly compare to the glorious Russian tradition of festive intoxication.
“Religion is opiate for the masses!”, said the great theoretician of Communism, Karl Marx, presumably while high. “And who needs opiate”, expounded V. I. Lenin, “when we have vodka?” He then added, “Dude!” (Lenin. Full Collected Works. Vol. XXIV. p.783)
In Russia, the holiday season lasts between December 31 and January 8, with the period between January 1 and January 8 known as The National Hangover, or Mother Russia Needs To Lay Down a Bit. Almost all businesses are closed, right down to newspapers, which don’t come out the whole week, because small letters make Russia’s head hurt this time of the year.
To be sure, the New Year itself is toasted with champagne, usually of the Sovietskoye Shampanskoye brand, known as the main reason Napoleon’s frightened and scandalized troops ran out of Russia in 1812. It’s used to wash down the remains of the Olivier salad and is usually accompanied by tangerines.
But once the time to midnight has been counted down, Russia gets down to the serious celebrating business by pulling its bottle of Stolichnaya out of its ZIL brand refrigerators. There is only one thing Americans should know about drinking with Russians: don’t. It is the number two killer of Americans in the history of inter-country relations, trailing only the cumulative effects of marrying a mail-order bride.
It’s true that Russians don’t trust people who won’t drink with them, but since you’re a foreigner, you got this covered already, so there isn’t much to lose. But, if you’re just enough insane to brave the experience, be prepared for consuming vodka straight, by a 250-ml glass, and repeatedly. Mixing, flavoring, befouling it with ice and moderation are not for us. While non-drinkers aren’t trusted, those who can’t hold their drink aren’t respected, and threading this needle is, in a word, hard. You will be pressured to consume lethal amounts.
This comes in a form of offering many toasts: “To your health!” (You like health, yes?), “To the children!” (What, you don’t like the children?), “To the beautiful ladies!” (Are you some kind of gay?), “To Putin!” (silent, hard stares in your direction), “To Motherland!” (…), and, for the coup de grace, “To America!”, which is the point when you are expected to fall under the table and submit your fate to the Russian form of social Darwinism.
One way to avoid major health issues is to know your limits. Luckily, there is an easy way to do this. This information is in your passport. Look under the “Place of birth.” If it contains a North American nation, your limit is “very low.” So, do your liver a favor and, after draining your first glass (shouts of approval, pats on back), make the subsequent ones last three or four toasts each.
The first glass is crucial, though, as it determines the amount of respect you are entitled to. So, make it count. First, make sure you have a morsel of food readily at hand. Black bread or a pickle are traditional and will show you are a person who means business. Second, drain your glass in one gulp. No sipping, no savoring, no sniffing, no whirrling the glass. Down the hatch, go. Afterwards, you can exhale loudly and offer an appreciative remark, such as “Horosho!” (“Good!”) or simply an “Ooh!” Third, eat your food.
If you are aiming to be a Level 800 Russian, you can just smell the bread or the pickle in lieu of eating it, but eating after drinking is normal procedure, and it will make you last longer. You have now earned your brownie points and can ease up a bit.
And, please, never ask a Russian which brand of vodka is best. Vodka is vodka. It’s a functional drink, to get us from point A to point What Do You Know Bout Me? You Never Unsurdstan Russian Soul, Yankee! Here, Come, I Kiss! Brother!
Now that you are good and tipsy, it is time to enjoy some culture…
Holiday TV Programming
“At New Year, the most important thing is what? Television!” So speaketh Postman Pechkin, a famous Russian cartoon character known for his deep mistrust of talking cats and his somewhat disturbing penchant for measuring boys. The strange old man is right!
If the New Year without the Olivier salad can’t legally happen, then the New Year without special TV programming is just so, so sad. Americans may not understand this, as their TV viewing is almost entirely limited to televangelists and the NFL, but it is absolutely essential!
Actually, I have sometimes heard of a special movie played in America around this time, called “This Is A Life of Wonders” or something like that. From what I could gather, the plot revolves around a suicidal, exploited worker who is visited by a fraudulent religious entity and is convinced to fall back into line and keep toiling for his plutocrat capitalist master because, hey, it beats being dead. Typical capitalist propaganda, the kind you guys are being spoon-fed from your IKEA cradle to your pauper’s grave.
The Russian New Year movie for ages, on the other hand, is The Irony of Fate, by the ingenious Jewish director Eldar Ryazanov. The film itself is a standard Russian boy-meets-girl story. Or rather a boy-meets-girl-boy-goes-to-get-smashingly-drunk-in-a-bath-house-with-friends-boy-accidentally-flies-to-Leningrad-in-place-of-another-boy-boy-breaks-into-someone’s-house-because-in-Soviet-Russia-every-city-has-same-street-names-and-exact-same-houses-down-to-the-furnitute-boy-meets-another-girl-who-instead-of-calling-cops-falls-in-love–boy-gets-into-a-fight-with-girl’s-boyfriend-boy-finally-goes-back-home-upon-sobering-up-but-eventually-reuinites-with-his-Leningrad-girl story. It teaches us immortal lessons of true love, New Year’s magic and the hilarity of pathological alcoholism.
It is easily the most famous and most beloved Soviet film of all time, despite featuring Russians who are strikingly dissimilar to both Ivan Drago and Boris Badenoff. It is so successful, in fact, that some politicians are demanding to ban it, a sure sign of quality.
Another holiday TV staple is the traditional New Year’s Concert, which features all the best Russian pop music and stand-up comedy has to offer. It is this time of the year, when all the brightest stars come out to do whatever it is that passes for shining. One is the crooner Iosif Kobzon, with his sweet love song, “To The Sunny Peace We Say Yes, Yes, Yes! To the Nuclear Explosion We Say No, No, No!” Kobzon is also known as a politcian, a mafia boss, and Pavel Bure’s friend, so he is Level 800 Russian, despite being a toupeed Jew.
Also appearing is the pop diva Alla Pugachyova who usually sings a sad song “A Million Red Roses” about a painter who died of hunger because he was in love or something. She is a favorite of Alex Ovechkin’s, and everybody’s, mom. She has been under restoration since 2001.
Stand-up comedians also do their much-anticipated schtick. Until his death in 2017, the most popular one was Mikhail Zadornov with his bit “Americans be so stupid – HOW STUPID ARE THEY? – They are so stupid, they celebrate New Year seven days early! Without vodka!”
But the true highlight of the evening is the New Year Address by whomever happens to be the hollow corpse of a human being occupying the nation’s highest seat of power. The whole family is expected to go quiet and listen as the words of official wisdom pour from the TV.
“My dear compatriots”, it will usually begin, expounding on the hardships and their heroic overcoming that Russians were busy with in the past year. The dear leader will then wish his grateful subjects the most happy and prosperous year for heroically overcoming new hardships. It is only after the Zombie General of the Central Committee wishes us a happy New Year that the champagne bottles are opened and the wild night of celebration begins.
Truly, Russians have done the world a great service by inventing both the TV and the holiday programming!
There are many other aspects to the proper Russian New Year celebration, from Properly and Safely Seating of the Mother-in-Law to the Making of Wishes While Kissing Random Females, but diving any deeper into our holiday culture might exceed most safety parameters.
So, join me next decade when we continue our exploration of Russian food, when I will easily convince you that America knows nothing about how to make a good hamburger.
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