S novym godom: enjoy a Russian happy new year!
Forget Christmas! In Russia – and in some other former Soviet countries – Novyi God (Новый Год, ‘New Year’) is arguably the most popular holiday of the year. Christmas was banned by the Bolsheviks following the 1917 Revolution and, although it is celebrated nowadays (more on that later), Russia’s biggest winter holiday remains a secular New Year’s affair.
Greetings and fir trees
If you find yourself in Russia towards the end of December, expect to be inundated with wishes of s novym godom (с новым годом, meaning ‘happy New Year’) or s nastupayushchim. S nastupayushchim (с наступающим) literally translates as ‘with the coming’; in Russian, the instrumental case (one of six cases used in the language to show the role that a noun/adjective plays in a phrase) is used to convey good wishes, so even saying something as seemingly straightforward as ‘happy new year’ (or ‘with the new year’) requires a little grammatical savoir-faire.
One of the most important elements to any New Year celebration is the fir tree, or yolka (ёлка). The decoration of festive yolki (ёлки, plural of yolka) at Christmas time was prohibited in the final years of Imperial Russia because the tradition had its roots in Germany, enemy of Russia during World War I. Yolki returned with a vengeance in the Soviet Union, this time associated with New Year. The noun yolka also denotes a special New Year show especially for children; in the USSR, yolki were usually organized by the state, but these days commercial events also abound.
Ded Moroz and Snegurochka
If it’s your turn to take little Masha and Dima to the yolka then you’re sure to encounter Ded Moroz (Дед Мороз) and Snegurochka (Снегурочка), who are responsible for delivering and distributing New Year gifts (podarki/подарки) to Russian-speaking children. Ded Moroz, or ‘Grandfather Frost’ (Ded is short for dedushka/дедушка, meaning ‘grandfather’, while moroz means ‘frost’), wears a long blue fur coat (shuba/шуба) and sports a long beard that makes him look uncannily like Santa Claus. Ded Moroz is usually accompanied on his travels by his granddaughter Snegurochka (usually translated as ‘Snow Maiden’), a young girl made of snow who has been brought to life. Like Santa Claus, Ded Moroz and Snegurochka travel by sleigh: a troika (тройка), in fact, so-called because it is pulled by a trio (troika) of horses.
Food, fur coats, and fireworks
Of course, New Year wouldn’t be New Year without the prazdnichnyi stol (праздничный стол), or ‘festive table.’ A typical buffet spread might include caviar (ikra/икра), or perhaps the intriguingly-named ‘herring under a fur coat’ (selyodka pod shuboi/селедка под шубой). The ‘fur coat’ in question consists of layers of grated, boiled root vegetables, a healthy amount of beetroot (svyekla/свекла), and a dollop of mayonnaise (mayonez/майонез).
Another mainstay of the holiday feast is salat oliv’e (салат оливье, or ‘Olivier salad’): a mix of diced carrots, potatoes, pickles, eggs, ham, and mayonnaise. The salad is named after Belgian chef Lucien Olivier, who created the dish while working at the Hermitage restaurant in Moscow in the 1860s. All this food is traditionally washed down with champagne (shampanskoe/шампанское). Shampanskoe is actually an adjective employed as a noun: its neuter ending -oe agrees with the neuter noun ‘wine’ (vino/вино). In the Soviet Union a mass-produced state alternative to French bubbly was most common (sovetskoe shampanskoe/советское шампанское, literally: ‘Soviet champagne’) and these days several companies produce similar varieties – although under EU law, only sparkling wine produced in Champagne, France can be called ‘champagne.’
Come midnight on 31 December, those living in Russia might turn to the TV to watch the President’s address (obrashchenie Prezidenta/обращение Президента), before welcoming the New Year with a champagne toast (tost/тост) and some fireworks (feyerverki/фейерверки). Some might also take the opportunity to watch the classic Soviet love story Ironiia sud’by (Ирония судьбы), which is to Russian New Year as It’s a Wonderful Life is to Christmas in the United States.
Keep the parties going…
All this festive fun doesn’t have to end on 1 January: Christmas (Rozhdestvo/Рождество) is traditionally celebrated on 7 January, as most Eastern Orthodox Christians follow the Julian calendar rather than the Gregorian calendar – meaning Christmas falls two weeks later. Rozhdestvo is connected to the verb ‘give birth’ (rodit’/родить) rather than Jesus Christ: in Russian, Jesus is Iisus Khristos (Иисус Христос). Practising Christians will usually attend a liturgiia (литургия, meaning ‘liturgy’) on Christmas Eve and another service on Christmas Day. For secular Russians, 7 January is a time to spend with family (like 1 January, it is a public holiday).
While most European countries return to work on 2 January, in Russia the celebrations continue long into the month. On 14 January it’s Old New Year (Staryi Novyi God/Старый Новый Год): the date that the New Year arrives for those using the Julian calendar. Old New Year may not be an official holiday, but it’s certainly an excuse for another party. And who doesn’t find the phrase Old New Year at least wryly amusing?
So s Novym Godom! And if you miss the chance to wish your Russian friends well this 31 December, rest easy that you’ll have plenty of opportunities to give your best in the weeks to come.