In light of the approaching holiday season, I would like to run a little quiz:
What was the most anticipated holiday in the Soviet Union?
- Great October Socialist Revolution Day (ironically, celebrated on November 7)
2. Military Parade on the Victory Day (celebrated in May)
While the rest of the world celebrated the end of WWII on May 8, Russians celebrated it on May 9. Stalin was upset that he wasn’t at the German Instrument of Surrender signing in Reims, so the USSR requested the Surrender be signed for a second time with the Soviet High Command present, which was done a day later in Berlin.
3. New Year’s Celebration (celebrated on December 31/January 1)
New Year’s used to be the most beloved holiday of the Soviet people. It was the only holiday that offered a true joy of festive traditions free from heavy communist propaganda, even though those traditions were made up and kind of weird, since the New Year’s celebration was combined with Christmas.
Before the Russian Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, Russia, along with Europe and the US, celebrated the two holidays separately.
However, after the Revolution, the Russian Orthodox Church was outlawed along with all other religions and philosophic doctrines beyond socialism, communism, and atheism.
All religious holidays were cancelled, and people got busy disassembling churches, as well as killing and imprisoning priests and believers.
One probably wouldn’t go to Gulag for putting up a decorated tree at home, but since it was strongly discouraged, my great-grandparents drew their curtains to prevent outside glimpses of their precious tree, just in case.
It was only in 1937 that the Soviet New Year’s Eve celebration was given a decorated tree and attended by Father Frost (Russian Santa) and his accomplice, Snow Maiden Snegurochka, who brought presents to Soviet children for the first time.
My great-grandparents were born into Russian Orthodoxy, but they didn’t miss going to church at all. However, they did love their Christmas tree! In fact, my family loved it so much that my then-six-year-old mother, Mila, and her grandmother Makava took their prized Christmas ornaments with them on a six-month evacuation trip to escape from besieged Leningrad in 1942. They wanted to make sure their Christmas tree in the Arctic would be properly adorned for 1943.
Even during the war, the Moscow Kremlin still had their own New Year’s celebration for children, called The Main Yolka (Pine Tree) of the Country.
By the time I came along, the myth and tradition of the holiday were set in stone, and preparations for it would start months in advance.
Mayonnaise was rare and highly coveted, as it was an essential ingredient for a staple dish, Salad Olivier (Russian salad). No celebratory dinner was complete without it, and it was quite a quest to get all the ingredients in time. Besides the essential mayo, you also needed hard-to-get green peas and ham or bologna.
Putting up a handsome tree would also require some considerable skills. Even though tree bazaars were popping up everywhere, the trees on sale looked like this:
But you had to work with what you had, even if it meant combining two or three trees together as a kind of Christmas tree bouquet.
People added tons of decorations to mask bald spots. This effort always paid off in the end, and our trees looked beautiful.
New Year’s was a family-and-friends affair, and you had to be present at the table before the last stroke of the Moscow Kremlin clock at midnight, or you would be out of luck for the whole next year. With the last stroke, everybody toasted, drank, and exchanged gifts. After that, the official part would be over, and people would continue on gorging themselves on rich food and holiday TV programs.
The movie “The Irony of Fate” was shown every New Year’s Eve, and people knew it by heart but still looked forward to watching it again.
Champagne was offered to anyone in the family, including young children. If you were old enough to stay up late, you were old enough for a drink.
I was five when I was first allowed to stay up late for the celebration. In Russian, vstrecha Novogo Goda (New Year’s Eve celebration) literally translates as “meeting with New Year.” In my head, I pictured that, exactly at midnight, a̶ h̶a̶n̶d̶s̶o̶m̶e̶ ̶s̶t̶r̶a̶n̶g̶e̶r̶ Father Frost would knock on our door, bring us presents, and indulge us in a deliciously mysterious celebration.
To say I was disappointed is an understatement; I was crushed.
And I made sure that everyone else felt as miserable as I did.
The next day, January 1, was an official hangover day, dedicated to paying visits to friends and clearing up leftovers.
And then we would repeat it all again two weeks later b̶e̶c̶a̶u̶s̶e̶ ̶w̶e̶ ̶c̶o̶u̶l̶d̶ in a celebration of Old New Year’s!
While the Western world used the Gregorian calendar established by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582, stubborn Russians insisted on the good old Julian’s well until after the Bolshevik Revolution.
We would also hang on to our Christmas trees for months until they lost all their pine needles.
So, next time if you see some strange people dragging home your freshly discarded Christmas tree after December 26, the chances are they are ̶e̶n̶v̶i̶r̶o̶n̶m̶e̶n̶t̶a̶l̶i̶s̶t̶s̶ ̶a̶t̶t̶e̶m̶p̶t̶i̶n̶g̶ ̶t̶o̶ ̶t̶u̶r̶n̶ ̶i̶t̶ ̶i̶n̶t̶o̶ ̶h̶a̶n̶d̶m̶a̶d̶e̶ ̶p̶a̶p̶e̶r̶ your Russian neighbors.
Go ahead and say promptly:
* If you answered the quiz correctly, the chances are:
-You were Russian in your previous life
-Your cat is Russian
-You are Russian