The main and the most important holiday in Russia is New Year. History of this holiday is complicated. Before revolution in 1917 New Year was not a big thing. People observed Christmas and it was the main winter holiday both religious and social. Religion was banned in soviet times and Christmas was no longer a holiday. In pursuit of replacing Christmas, at some point of soviet history, soviet government established New Year as a public holiday. Traditions of observing this holiday have been developing throughout decades of soviet history. New Year we have now is a purely soviet holiday that (unlike many other traditions) haven not change much since ussr times.
Celebration of New Year in Russia is massive. It starts few weeks before holiday, with decorations, lights and new year trees appearing on city squares, in public organizations, businesses and private homes. New Year tree in Russia is spruce. They are cut before the holiday in large quantities and sold on special street markets that will be appearing everywhere in and larger shops. In Moscow, in addition to decorations all over the city, there will be holiday markets, on-street performances, concerts. Shows and decorations will have themes from New Year tales, fairytales, traditional festivities.
December and first days of January is a season for New Year events taking place everywhere for kids, called “ёлка”, “yolka” (New Year Tree). Yolka is the show type of event, where kids get entertainment and gifts, play games and do simple ring dance around the tree. The centerpiece of any yolka event is a decorated New Year tree around which the whole show evolves. The main yolka event is held in Kremlin. Hosts of any yolka event are Ded Moroz and Snegurochka.
New Year celebration in Russia has its magical figure, by its role-play very identical to western Santa. Russian Santa’s name is “Ded Moroz” (“Grandfather Frost” in a very rough translation) and he has a female companion, a granddaughter by the role — Snegurochka (“Snowy Girl”, again, a very rough translation). Ded Moroz and Snegurochka come to bring gifts and they ride their sleigh pulled by three horses (troika). Ded Moroz is supposed to have large white beard and be dressed in red and while coat, while Snegurochka is supposed to be a young woman dressed in light blue coat. They might also have snowman and various animals helping them.
Not long time ago I witnessed heated argument between three school boys. The boys were about 8-9 years or age, discussing some cellphone on display in the electronics store. Discussion was about ways of getting that cellphone. One of the boys was very confident that Ded Moroz might get that phone to him as a gift for New Year. The other two were skeptical about Ded Moroz arguing that, “It must be the parents”.
Along with events for kids, adult employees of businesses and government organizations will have New Year corporate events. There will be a separate article on those events.
Because celebration is big and important, people start preparing long before the holiday. Aside from New Year tree, which not every home will have, the centerpiece of New Year celebration is holiday table, full of food. Russians socialize and celebrate over food and New Year is no exception. The key element of any New Year celebration is overnight dinner. New Year dinner starts late in the evening of December 31st and continues throughout the night. I will write a separate article on the New Year food. Important to understand here that New Year table must be real big and provide lots of food not only for the New Year night, but few days after. Eating New Year table leftovers is also a part of holiday tradition. Ideally, New Year food must be home made. However, with all the busyness, many people have no time for cooking and they order some of the food for their New Year table. Cooking services available privately and through many cafes and restaurants.
This New Year table tradition means all families start stocking lots of food long before holidays. They also plan celebration entertainment, buy gifts, new clothing, make new haircuts and so on. December, especially its second part, will be a rush season. Many restaurants will be booked for corporate events. Food shops will be packed with people, especially on weekends, huge crowds of shoppers buying food in bulk quantities. Shopping malls will be crowded with people buying gifts. Delivery services will be overloaded with orders. Car traffic, especially in larger cities like Moscow, will be horrendous. Hair dressers will be fully booked in the last two weeks of December. Many people will be traveling before holidays. This means more airport traffic and higher ticket prices.
Last thing to mention here is that New Year public holidays last for ten days, which makes a nice addition to annual paid vacation.
For Russians New Year is a holiday that comes with feelings of joy, fun, hopes for the better upcoming year. People will be exchanging gifts, sending postcards.
In the next article we will talk about how New Year celebration happens in Russia.