The New Year is, without doubt, the most important holiday on the Russian calendar. It equates if not outstrips the importance of Christmas in America, if to compare the two holidays in the two cultures. New Year in Russia is a time to be together with family and friends, for gift giving, major consumer spending, decorating trees, and even fireworks. Midnight is, by tradition, marked by listening to the Kremlin bells chime (either as broadcast by most major television channels or by actually standing on Red Square). Russian folk belief, still seen as tradition by many, holds that one must toast when the bells begin to chime and that those with whom you toast will be near you for the rest of the next year. Most of the celebrations occur on New Year’s Eve (on December 31) while the holiday day (January 1) itself is largely a time for relaxing.
A few SRAS students, on academic year programs abroad, chose to stay through the holiday season. They are rarely disappointed. Below are some of their observations on what they witnessed while abroad.
Lucy Harnish has an English Literature degree with a double minor in Russian Culture and History from McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. Lucy will spend two semesters with SRAS studying Russian as a Second Language in St Petersburg, Russia. Lucy hopes that by the end of her time in St Petersburg she will be able to reread the works of Turgenev, Dostoyevsky, and Tolstoy in the Russian language. She plans to utilize the experience she gains while studying abroad to pursue a degree in journalism.
Upon my arrival to St Petersburg, Russia in September I was fully aware that I would be spending the holidays in a foreign country. This was because roundtrip flights back to North America are expensive, especially during the holiday season. The only reassuring thing about being away from my family in Canada during the holidays was that I knew I would have over a month long break between semesters that would allow me to travel within Russia, which was something I was looking forward to.
In Russia, the holiday season starts on New Year’s and runs through the first week or more of January. Since the Russian Orthodox Church follows the Julian calendar, the birth of Jesus Christ falls on the day we call January 7 by our Gregorian calendars (the Julian is two weeks ahead of the Gregorian). This means that unlike in my native Canada, where things close on December 24 and remain closed until the shopping spree that is Boxing Day (the day after Christmas), everything is open in Russia until New Year’s Eve.
In Russia, celebrating the New Year is far more important than Christmas. Although some Russians go to clubs or major public squares to ring in the New Year, most do this at home with family. Typically, a family gathers for a large meal and watches the clock strike midnight on Red Square on the television. It is also on New Year’s Eve that Ded Moroz (Russia’s version of Santa Claus) delivers gifts to children.
Christmas is a purely religious holiday in Russia. Traditionally, Russians celebrate Christmas Eve with a feast that consists of 12 dishes to represent the 12 disciples of Jesus. This is followed with either prayers or a trip to a late service at church (typically beginning at midnight). However, most Russians, while identifying as Russian Orthodox, don’t directly celebrate the holiday – although it is still usually a day off because of the extended New Year’s holiday that give Russians an extended vacation of usually 9-11 days.
While there are differences in dates in the Russian and North American traditions, the spirit and the joyful feelings associated with the holiday season are the same. Although I was in a foreign country, I felt no shortage of the Christmas Spirit. In St Petersburg it was as if overnight that the city transitions from a city suffering through winter into a winter wonderland. In early December, lights are hung overnight all over St Petersburg. This made the city feel a lot like home. Furthermore, restaurants, universities, hotels, and shopping malls also embrace the holiday spirit with large decorated Christmas trees, lights, and ornaments.
On December 25, I was in Irkutsk, as I had already completed the university semester and had begun my travels. As the city is geographically far from Europe, I thought perhaps the spirit would be different. It was not. Upon arrival to our Airbnb I noticed a variety of Christmas decorations all over the apartment and a small Christmas tree in the living room. Our host wished us a happy holiday as she handed us the keys and gave us recommendations. On December 25, I went on a tour of Lake Baikal and upon entering the car the tour guide wished us a Merry Christmas in English. That night when I ate out at a restaurant I could not help but notice the Christmas lights hanging around us and the Western Christmas music playing in the background.
I celebrated New Year’s in St. Petersburg and could not help but notice how the city came alive. There were people everywhere celebrating and it made you feel a part of the city’s community. Every step you took Russians were screaming “С новым годом” (Happy New Year). I spent the holiday with friends in the dormitory where we cooked, watched Putin’s annual speech, the clock strike midnight in Moscow, and then visited Palace Square in front of the Hermitage. On New Year’s Eve, the Hermitage is the centre of activity in St Petersburg where you can find music, entertainment, and fireworks. Although it was different from how I would celebrate the New Year at home, it was a welcome change that I will remember for a long time.
If you are celebrating the holidays in Russia you will never feel alone. Russians are incredibly welcoming and always eager to talk to you about the differences in holiday traditions. You will notice that the lights, happiness, and feeling of community that is espoused during Christmas in North America is also in Russia. Do not be afraid to try new things and allow yourself to enjoy and embrace cultural differences!
One of the most amazing things I’ve done in Russia is to celebrate the New Year here. This is Russia’s main holiday. In Russia, Christmas (celebrated on Jan 7 rather than Dec 25) is a religious holiday without gifts and parties. The New Year is more like our Christmas and when the Russian version of Santa Claus, Ded Moroz and Snegurochka the snow maiden, deliver gifts. It is really much more than that, though.
One of the main gathering places for the New Year’s Eve countdown is in Kirov Square. In addition to the many ice sculptures, a huge New Year’s Tree, a big ice slide, and music playing 24/7, there will be a firework show and lots of families, students, and visitors will ring in the new year with some fun. This is an excellent place to spend New Year’s Eve if you really want to experience a large community feeling and get together in the freezing winter to celebrate.
If huge crowds or freezing cold nights are not your thing, there are many options on what to do. Many people get together with friends at bars, restaurants, and/or at home. Many places have New Year’s specials and will stay open especially for this reason. However, if you plan to go this route many places require an advanced reservation and fill up fast, so call ahead!
This year I decided to spend the new Year with some friends from the dorms. We watched Putin’s yearly speech and then decided to sled and watch some fireworks. Located about 5-10 minutes away from the dorms is a small ski hill. We climbed up the hill by the ski lift (tiring but worth it) and waited at the top to watch the fireworks. There were several other groups of people doing their own thing and we did the countdown and literally slid into the New Year. I highly recommend this option if living in the dorms as it was fun, cold, and memorable.
No matter what your plans may be, spending the New Year in Russia is an unforgettable experience. New Year’s truly is the most beautiful time to see the breathtaking scenery and view all that the Siberian winter has to offer.
Жаңы жылыңыздар менен! С Новым годом! In Bishkek, Новый год (New Year’s) is not just a holiday but a season, culminating in a celebration that begins on the morning of December 31st and lasts a whole сутки (24 hours). It’s the perfect holiday, as far as I’m concerned. As a Jewish-American with a fanatical appreciation for snow, twinkling lights, and the smell of Christmas trees, I grew up feeling a little bittersweet about Christmas. Новый год brings together ёлки (holiday trees), food, presents, and decorations into a secular holiday I can rightfully celebrate. Plus, there are fireworks, champagne, and Russian fairy-tales involved, too!
It’s been Новогодний сезон (New Year’s season) in Bishkek for at least a month now. Bishkek’s bazaars have reached a fever pitch of holiday spirit. There are tables overflowing with holiday cakes, shiny garlands, candy, and boxes upon brightly-colored boxes of fireworks. Маркет Народный (National Market), the ubiquitous chain supermarket in the city, hung ornaments and put out holiday candy weeks ago, and their cashiers are wearing red caps that in this part of the world are шапки Деда Мороза (Grandfather Frost hats). Cafes and malls are decked out in lights and ornaments, and I was lucky enough to ride on the most festive маршрутка (scheduled taxi minivan) I’ve ever seen – it was wearing its very own Дед Мoроз costume.
I asked two friends to tell me about some of their Новый год traditions. Whether or not you’re lucky enough to be in Bishkek for Новый год, here are some ways to celebrate the holiday по-бишкекски (Bishkek-style).
Clean the house: “My family gets ready for the holiday by cleaning the house starting in the morning, in order to greet the New Year in a clean home,” says my friend Aishola.
Spend time with family and friends: Новый год is traditionally celebrated at home with relatives and friends. Galya’s favorite way to celebrate is “to meet the New Year with my closest friends, to hang out all night and then sleep until the afternoon.” Aishola says, “On Новый год, I’m usually with my cousins. We have snowball fights, go sledding, spend half the day outside in the snow and then watch New Year’s cartoons, have a New Year’s Eve disco, and sing songs.”
Shop, Cook, and Eat – and Eat and Eat: Bazaars and grocery stores were packed the morning of December 31st this year. Shoppers carried bursting bags of produce and prepared salads, while discussing the day’s chores and plans on their cell phones. The лепёшка stand where I buy a hot loaf of round, fluffy bread every morning sold out just as I arrived – the shopper before me bought the last six loaves.“We have characteristic, richly-laid tables,” Galya says of her Новый год celebrations. After cleaning, Aishola’s family “puts various snacks out on the table – most importantly, of course, оливье.” Galya’s family’s signature dish is “a fruit salad dressed with honey and cinnamon. It’s a good alternative to the heavy snacks that sit in the fridge for days.”
Lots and lots of закуски (snacks) are one popular way to cover the table with food on the holiday. Оливье, винегрет, and селедка под шубой, three Russian holiday salads, are on the table in most Bishkek homes on Новый год.
Have drinks on hand for toasts: Champagne is part of almost every Новый год celebration. I also recommend introducing some глинтвейн (mulled wine) into your holiday. This drink is easy to find in cafes and restaurants around Bishkek, but it’s even better homemade. “The most epic drinking happens on Новый год,” according to Galya. Whomever you celebrate with, make sure to go around your table at least once, with each person toasting the group and the New Year in turn.
Listen to presidential speeches: This is a common answer when I ask people about Новый год traditions here. Aishola explains: after eating, “the whole family gathers around the table and watches our president’s traditional address, and then we wait until 3 a.m. to see the traditional address by the president of Russia.”
Set off fireworks: Fireworks have been bursting in Bishkek’s courtyards in the late evenings for weeks now. But the night of Новый год is one enormous fireworks display. Galya describes it wonderfully: “Like lots of people, we like to set off fireworks and rockets. Around 12 o’clock, the city turns into a bubbling pot, boiling over with flashes and explosions.”
Make a night of it: After listening to President Putin’s speech at 3 a.m., “the dancing and fun begin,” according to Aishola. Bishkek’s residents take their revelry seriously: “They say that January 1st doesn’t exist, and it’s true,” says Galya. “If you go out on the street on January 1st, you’ll see practically no one. The Новый год celebration is like a zombie invasion here. In the beginning, everyone wants to gorge and drink, so they buy up all the stores and bazaars. Then we have to stuff ourselves with it all in two days, until we practically die from overeating! We ‘come back from the dead’ sometime around the 3rd.”
Do it all over again: Galya points out that Новый год happens more than once a year in Bishkek. Not only is midnight celebrated twice – first by Bishkek time, and then by Moscow time – but Старый Новый год, or Old New Year (which was created by Russia’s belated shift from the Julian to the more modern Gregorian calendar – read more about that here) is celebrated as well. Galya likes that this second Новый год, the night of January 13th, allows her to “celebrate with the people who couldn’t be with us on December 31st.”
So practice your recipes, fireworks displays, singing, and dancing on the 31st, and you’ll have it down perfectly in two weeks when you get to do it all again!