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RIA Novosti
January 1, 2008
Four in one: that’s how many celebrations we pack into our winter holidays

MOSCOW. (Dmitri Gubin) – Before the 1917 revolution, Russia operated according to the Julian calendar, which is some 13 days behind the more modern Gregorian calendar.

When the Communists came to power they celebrated according to the new Georgian calendar but the Church refused to accept the new order. The Communists, in turn, refused to accept the old Orthodox festivals. The result is that, instead of one New Year and one Christmas, Russia celebrates two of each. Thus, for the most Europhile Russians, festivities begin on December 24 in celebration of the Christians' Christmas Day. After Christmas follows the most enthusiastically celebrated holiday of all: New Year’s Eve. Then there is the Russian Orthodox Christmas (January 7) and, finally, the Old New Year (January 13).

Last year these festivities were made law, and December 30 to January 8 is now an official state holiday.

Christmas Characters

There is no Russian home that would do without a Yolka (spruce) Christmas/New Year’s tree. Whether real or synthetic, miniscule or scratching the ceiling, from the forests just outside Moscow or from Scandinavian farms (in which case, it is not a spruce but simply a fir tree), few Russian homes are without one. A sister of the European or American Christmas tree, the Russian Yolka does, however, differ in a few important ways.

First, Russians do not aim to decorate the tree by Christmas Day, but continue to do so right up until midnight on New Year’s Eve. Secondly, though fashionable in the West, handmade decorations are not used in Russia. This is because the Russian Yolka is not supposed to demonstrate talent and personal ability, as much as to show off a family’s riches. Russians are obliged to break the bank on toys for their Yolkas: baubles, electric lights, bells, snowflakes and so on.

The director of festivities, on the other hand, is the unusually conservative Grandad Frost. A tall old man with a full beard, Frosty is not well disposed to extravagance, like throwing presents down chimneys or wearing dainty hats with jingle bells. Instead, he is only aware of his most important responsibility, which is to hand out good presents to good people. And in this he is aided by his charming niece the Snow Maiden ­ who, as legend has it, is supposed to melt in spring.

Just as with the Santas you see working at malls in America, Granddad Frost and the Snow Maiden entertain countless families all over the country -- visiting homes on paid to order requests. At each home Granddad Frost will be treated to a drink. On New Year’s Eve, requests come so fast and frequent that, by 12pm, Granddad Frost is in the kind of state that usually befits the Snow Maiden in spring.

Presents and Presidents

Every New Year is celebrated by Russians in identical fashion. Two minutes before the New Year, the President appears on TV with a national address. This is a Russian tradition ­ Brezhnev did it, as did Gorbachev and Yelstin, and Putin does it now.

Then, for one whole minute, the whole country watches their television sets which are invariably broadcasting an image of the country's largest clock on the Kremlin's Spasskaya tower (erected during the era of Catherine the Great). As the minute hand slowly approaches 12, everyone counts the bell chimes monotonously.

When they ring for the twelfth time, three things follow automatically.

First, the obligatory bottle of champagne is popped (recently, some sophisticates have begun to open the bottle in the French manner ­ quietly and without pomp ­ though this is generally recognized as wholly improper).

Second, everyone shouts s novym godom! ('Happy New Year!'); some also open up doors and windows, so as to let the New Year into their house.

Third, a mass of presents begin to materialize under the Yelka, for kids as well as adults. If you find yourself celebrating New Year in a Russian family, you can be sure that a present will materialize for you too.

I say the word "materialize" for the simple reason that every year, beginning with childhood, I have attempted to monitor how presents appear under the tree. The same thing has happened to me every year: just before the Kremlin chimes begin to ring, there is not one present to speak of; by the time the chimes finish, a mountain of them appears!

Russians traipse around shops for a good week or two prior to the New Year, collecting presents of all descriptions, the average price of which has for many years been ballooning. For example, this year the Russian version of the Robb Report recommended: a) the Zonda F – Pagani sports car, b) a full-size merry-go-round or, c), a retro Black Swan sailing ship. As stocking fillers, the magazine recommended a vineyard in South Africa, an apartment in Moscow and a chateau in France.

Time for Home & Travel

Generally speaking, the Russian New Year is a festival that has traditionally been celebrated at home (under the old regime, all restaurants were ordered to close at 10 in the evening). Whether one liked it or not, there was no choice but to sit at home. For lovers of extreme adventure, there was another option ­ the dacha, an out-of-town retreat sometimes translated (though somewhat erroneously) as “country house.” The use of the word “house” here presents difficulties in that it suggests the presence of sewer systems and water supply.

Much has changed since then. A great number of restaurants have opened; travel agencies are now plentiful; and dachas have been swapped for foreign palaces. All the same, the habit of staying at home remains. Even those Russians with restless feet generally leave the country only in the days following the New Year.

Travel itself is usually in one of three directions. The first is to Europe's snow-topped peaks for skiing and snowboarding. These tours are usually the most popular; elite resorts like Courchevel become Russian colonies over the New Year break. The second group of destinations are European capitals, of which Paris is most popular. The third option is to turn winter into summer and set off for exotic locales like Thailand and the United Arab Emirates.

The Old New Year

Officially speaking, Russians are obliged to return to work on January 9. In reality this rarely happens, as most people extend their already generous 10 days’ leave to include the Old New Year on January 13.

This occasion will, once again, call for an full festive table (if just a little less exuberant than the New New Year). Most likely, the table will be covered by bliny (pancakes), which have come to represent a Russian winter rite. The traditional way of eating blinys is to spend some time outside in the freezing cold before returning to the warmth, downing a shot of vodka and grabbing a pancake smeared with butter and caviar.

On this occasion, champagne and presents are usually overlooked. Instead, this is a day when the New Year most definitely fades back into the usual routine; it is a time to take the decorations down, brush away the fallen pine needles and store away a mass of unwanted presents in the loft.

From this point, only the most stubborn choose to continue. There is one club in St. Petersburg, The Snowstorm, which stoically prolongs the celebrations to unheard of dimensions. The club is the only place on Earth that I know of which, every day, on the stroke of midnight cracks open the bottles champagne to celebrate the traditional Russian New Year. And no one seems to mind.

A Magic Night for Great Food

All over the world, traditional holiday cooking remains even as globalization encroaches. Dishes prepared for the main holidays ignore the rules of healthy eating and replace them with tradition.

Such occasions are rare­usually once a year, on the principal religious feasts in most countries. Russians celebrate New Year’s Eve on the grandest scale, the night to reconcile all religions and denominations.

The centerpiece of a Russian holiday table is a dish that has too many calories to be healthy, but is excellent for the soul. Called Olivier Salad, it is named after its inventor, Lucien Olivier, a French chef who lived in Moscow in the 1860s. It is a mixture of fresh apples, pickled cucumbers, boiled potatoes and carrots and hardboiled eggs, all chopped into very small pieces, plus canned green peas, lavishly garnished with mayonnaise. The salad is served in amazing quantities.

Ranking next in popularity is seledka pod shuboi (literally, “herring in a fur coat”)­an elaborate dish with a bottom layer of grated boiled potatoes, then a layer of sliced herring, which sits beneath a layer of chopped hardboiled eggs and is topped with grated boiled beet. All this also drowns in mayonnaise to make a delicious, if somewhat heavy, hors-d’oeuvre.

Next come zakuski. Many languages have borrowed the word from Russian but in Russia it simply refers to any number of starters. The most popular is narezka, an arrangement of sliced meats. The word derives from rezat, meaning to “cut” or “slice.” There are about 50 kinds of narezkas, with usually at least five served at the New Year table.

The most famous Russian delicacy is caviar, usually served in cut-glass bowls. There is another linguistic peculiarity here; the word ikra means both sturgeon caviar and the cheaper salmon eggs. The former is referred to as “black caviar,” and the latter as “red.”

Caviar is spread on buttered bread as a prelude to the New Year feast, accompanied by champagne. The Iron Curtain made real champagne from France unavailable, and the regime never had any consideration for brands. So a modest sparkling wine was amply produced under the name of Soviet Champagne. Public taste for it did not vanish with the fall of Communism.

New Year’s celebrations and dishes that go with them are shared by all Russians, though the choice of hot food is not as obligatory. Everyone chooses something to his or her taste.

Dmitri Gubin, Chief Editor of Robb Report, Russian edition