New Year is the principal winter holiday, as opposed to Christmas. It is
universally recognised as such by both secular and religious people.
Whereas New Year is mostly an occasion merely for parties and drinking in
the West, most of the traditions associated with Christmas fall on New Year
in Russia. The welcoming of the new year is considered the most significant
occasion of the winter.
The New Year's tree (called "yolka", singular) is identical to a
although of course there is nothing in its name that binds it to a given
holiday. It is decorated in the same way, with ornaments, lights and
garland. Stars are usually perched atop the tree rather than angels, and
ornaments of a religious nature as well as nativity scenes are notably
absent, from the perspective of a Western observer.
Folklore holds that Ded Moroz ("Grandfather Frost") is charged with the
responsibility for delivering presents on New Year's Eve. He is a
large, bearded and grandfatherly man resembling Santa Claus, although
he has no saintly identity, nor sleigh nor reindeer. He is sometimes
said to be dressed in blue rather than red - this is a point of contention.
Either way, he emerges on
New Year's Eve with a gargantuan, overflowing sack of gifts and
dispenses them to each family. The actual procedure of doing this is
not a significant component of the mythology; he doesn't come down
the chimney, but it doesn't really matter how he gets into your dwelling.
Perhaps through the front door, perhaps through the window - who knows?
Instead of elves to help him, Ded Moroz has his grand-daughter Snegurochka
("Snowy"), with whom he lives somewhere in the northern forest. Snegurochka
is generally portrayed as an attractive young blonde girl, often dressed
in light winter attire and sometimes a red cap. (In my experience, she is
distinguished by a scarf. At the Russian New Year's parties I have been to,
there was always a young woman dressed as Snegurochka, usually in a
minimalist outfit -- perhaps a dark or red dress -- but always with a
scarf draped about her neck.)
Presents are also given on New Year. There is no requirement of waiting until
the morning of New Year's Day to open them; instead, they are usually
presented and opened shortly after greeting the New Year at midnight.
Perhaps one would think that with the observation of such traditions on
New Year, there comes a certain solemnity that precludes "party"-style
celebration. This is not true. In fact, both are easily reconciled.
New Year's parties complete with drinking and dancing are in fact very
common, especially among young people. (Growing up in America,
I've been to a number of all-Russian New Year's gatherings that illustrate
the fusion of a warm, solemn holiday with flamboyant parties. First, great
care was taken that the children receive their presents as the guests looked
on, and once these 'formalities' were diligently taken care of,
there followed a long night of club-style dancing that lasted until dawn.)
Christmas is celebrated in Russia as a religious holiday.
Because the Russian Orthodox Church
does not recognise the Gregorian calendar, religious events are
timed according to the Julian calendar. This means that Christmas
falls on the 7th of January. In point of whether New Year and Christmas
have always held their respective positions, my knowledge is rather weak.
As far as I have been told, New Year has always held a position of eminence,
yet it is safe to assume that its position as the dominant affair of the
winter was bolstered by the official atheism of the Soviet regime.
Christmas was stripped of official recognition as a holiday after the
1917 revolution, and it was not re-established as such until 1992, after
the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
Some Americans (mostly of the "Christian Conservative" variety) have gone
so far as to speculate that this configuration of holidays is a
testament to the "repression" of the Russian people. Allegedly, we have
yearned all these years for the "true holiday" of Christmas with all our
moral strength, only to have our longing cries silenced under the heel of
the totalitarian (and Godless) jackboot. The story goes that we've been
to take what could be salvaged of Christmas and crudely graft it onto
New Year, prodded along by our Communist heathen overlords.
I really beg to differ. True,
public interest in the Orthodox Church and Christmas has been revived
significantly since the fall of the Soviet Union, but Russians are happy
with and proud of their New Year-centric tradition. I don't believe it's
going to change with the flourishing of "freedom" or whatnot.
I would also like to mention briefly the Russian approach to presents
in order to contrast it with what I have observed in America. While the
Russian approach is more traditional and European than nationally
idiosyncratic, it is still a matter for illustration of difference in
Presents are generally a thing intended to be shrouded in mystery and
surprise. In America, it is not uncommon to simply request what you want
from family or friends and to receive it without ceremony. This is
unthinkable in our tradition. It is a vital element of the present that
it is picked out by the person giving it, that it is sincere and comes
from the heart. It is also important to be surprised;
advance knowledge of your present defeats the entire purpose. Presents
are generally things of quality but modest in quantity; it would be
considered extremely poor form to have a "wish list" or a "Christmas list"
or something so pretentious. Likewise, giving money would be regarded
as very blunt, offensive and unrefined. Simply giving someone the means
to buy themselves a present is contrary to the entire purpose.
This is not to say that the giver of the present should ignore the apparent
wishes of the receiver and get him something totally random. On the
contrary, the point is to get someone you love what they want. If you are
a parent, perhaps you overheard your son or daughter talking once about
something they wish they had. You should keep this in mind for a present.
The point is for this to happen by implied understanding, and not by explicit
request. It should be a surprise, and should be given based on an earnest
desire to please.
It is also a matter of principle that presents retain a fog of mystery.
That is to say, it is inappropriate to inquire as to when, where and how
your present was obtained, before or after receiving it. It is also
forbidden to ask about the price; if by chance there is a price sticker
that the giver neglected to remove, you should throw it away promptly
and act as though you never saw it. These things simply don't matter.
In fact, not only is it a matter of ethics, but seeking information
about presents is regarded by many superstitious people as inviting bad
luck. The less you know, the better and the more magical it is.
I realise that most things I identify here as "American" (requesting
gifts, giving money, wish lists) are not so much American custom as
the result of crass commercialism and greed, but the fact remains that
they are the de facto practises I have observed. I'm very
critical of them and always do my best to give and receive presents
strictly adhering to our tradition.