Besides the New Year, Victory Day and perhaps the 8th of March, the next biggest holidays on most Russians’ rosters are actually their birthdays! The sheer level of drama that they entail, and the full-scale productions that they become are most certainly worthy of them being labeled cultural events.
While I have been a guest at many Russian birthday celebrations, a recent one that I attended served as a perfect example of the ceremonies often observed during such a revel. Megan Dwyer, Ithaca Sorenson and I (SRAS girls all) were invited to celebrate the birthday of a close mutual acquaintance at a Chinese restaurant called Золотой Век (Zolotoy Vek; Golden Age) in the Вторая Речка (Vtoraya Rechka; Second River) area of Vladivostok. While it was a somewhat dungeon-like establishment, with mediocre food at best, it should be noted that to hold a gathering at a restaurant, even for most middle-class Russians, is something out of the ordinary. This is because the home is most often the setting for gatherings of family and friends. To spend the effort and, most importantly, the money on a restaurant party signals not only the relative importance that birthdays hold, but also flaunts the wealth and prestige of the person throwing the party, which is frequently (as in this case) the person celebrating the birthday!
Taking pride of place on the celebratory table was a plentiful assortment of alcohol, and not only the traditional vodka, but also cognac and whiskey. Less frequently, liquors such as tequila or absinthe are also added to the mix. Furthermore, there were numerous bottles of both sodas and juices. These were all set out in order to enable the extensive rounds of toasting that typically go on in honor of the birthday celebrant. Once every 10-15 minutes (with rest intervals becoming shorter the longer the event continued), one of the guests around the table would stand and propose a heartfelt, and commonly long and flowery toast. After clinking glasses all around the table, every guest would down a shot of his chosen alcohol, which was then quickly followed with a swallow of his chosen mixer. Of secondary importance on the table was the food, the main purpose of which was merely to serve as something to munch on in order to mitigate the level of inebriation that would inevitably set in after several rounds of toasting. This reasoning also further explains why the specific choice of restaurant was not of crucial importance. In terms of the guests around the birthday table, in this case, as in most, they consisted of close friends and acquaintances from work. Sometimes family is included in such gatherings, but often celebrating with relatives is a separate affair.
All in all, Russian restaurant birthday parties are a lot of fun! If you happen to be invited to one, you should definitely accept the invitation, as it is an honor to be invited (and can be rather offensive if you turn it down). Also, be prepared to drink, and in large quantities! If you happen to be a teetotaler, you may be able to get away with not drinking in some circles, (saying that you can’t for medical or religious reasons is usually the best the way), but you should be prepared to deflect attempts to fill your glass with something other than soda or juice all night. It is part of Russia’s hospitality traditions to make sure that all are are filled with food and drink. In general, if you go, clear your calendar for the next day (recovery time!), call your taxi in advance and get ready to sing “С днем рождения (S dnyom rozhdeniya; Happy birthday)!”
The Golden Century/Золотой Век (or anywhere there are banquets!)
Ул. Кирова, д. 60
10 am – 12 am Daily
Free (paid for by celebrant)!