Moscow was recently recognized as one of Europe's top destinations for those traveling to see holiday festivals. Ice skating rinks, performances, master classes, games, shopping, and more abound throughout the city. Photo from Moscowseasons.com

Новый Год по-русски – A Russian New Year: Language Lesson

Published: December 29, 2019

In most of the Western world, Christmas is celebrated on December 25 and is one of the most popular holidays of the year. Families gather to обменяться подарками (exchange presents). In Russia, however, Christmas is mainly observed as a религиозный праздник (religious holiday), and is celebrated, в соответствии с российской православной традицией (according to the Orthodox tradition), on January 7. The most popular holiday in Russia is without a doubt New Year’s. Many Russians с нетерпением ждут новогодних праздников (can’t wait for the New Year’s holidays), as this time is often the самое яркое событие года (most outstanding event of the year).

Many traditions that ассоциируются с Рождеством (are associated with Christmas) in Europe and the US are associated with New Year’s in Russia. For example, almost all Russian families will наряжать ёлку (decorate a fir tree) for New Year’s, similar to the tradition of decorating a Christmas tree in the West. Several традиции празднования Нового года (New Year’s traditions) came to Russia from other countries. Some sources say that новогодняя ёлка (the New Year fir-tree) came from Germany, and the tradition of наряжать ёлку (decorating the fir-tree) came from France.

The holiday is heavily associated with food. New Year’s meals in Russia often consist of several salads and perhaps one or two main dishes. Салат «Оливье» (Olivier salad) and Сельдь «под шубой» (herring “under a fur coat”) are two staples of the holiday, to be found on nearly every table. Салат «Оливье» делается из нарезанного кубиками картофеля, овощей, яиц, ветчины, отварной курицы или говядины, и заправленный майонезом (Olivier is made withdiced potatoes, vegetables, eggs, ham, cooked chicken or beef , and mayonnaise as a dressing). Для сельди «под шубой» нарезанная кусочками сельдь покрывается слоями отваренных и натертых на терке овощей: картофеля, моркови и свеклы, с добавлением майонеза. (Herring “under a fur coat” is small pieces of pickled herring under several layers of boiled, shredded vegetables such as beets, potatoes, and carrots, which are bound with mayonnaise).

Mандарины (tangerines) are also associated by many Russians with the holiday. Oranges, tangerines, plums, and other fruits were also once special (and expensive) holiday treats in the West. However, advances in transport and storage technology helped reduce the price of fruit in winter and the West largely abandoned the tradition by the mid-20th century. In Russia, however, the Soviet government often imported tangerines specifically for the holiday until the late 20th century, helping to maintain the tradition in Russia.

Just as children in the West anxiously wait for Santa Claus to bring them presents, Russian children expect подарки от Деда Мороза (gifts from Grandfather Frost). Дед Мороз путешествует на тройке (travels on a “troika”) – a traditional Russian carriage driven by three horses. He travels with his внучка Снегурочка (granddaughter, the Snow maiden), and appears after его три раза позовут (he is called three times). It is fairly common now for parents in Russia to hire actors from an agency to play Дед Мороз and/or Снегурочка at family holiday parties. The actors are asked to вручить подарок (give a present) and often развлечь детей играми (play games with the children). The characters are also hired to come to schools, work places, and can be found roaming the city festivals that also occur in nearly every major Russian city and town.

Little children, as a rule, верят в Деда Мороза (believe in Grandfather Frost), just as many Western children believe in Santa Claus. They долго готовятся (spend a long time preparing) for his arrival: children наряжаются (dress up) – often in their best clothes or in carnival-like costumes and учат стихотворение или песню (learn a poem or a song) for Дед Мороз, who gives them presents as a reward for their performance. At schools, children have a новогодний вечер (New Year’s evening party) or, for younger children, a новогодний утренник, where they водят хороводы вокруг ёлки (sing and dance around the fir-tree) and play забавные игры (funny games). Many theatres will also offer special ёлки, a term that literally means “fir trees,” but refers to a specific type of party and performance. These are always holiday themed, geared for children, and often (but not always) interactive.

Above: a video of a Russian утренник, a New Year event held at most Russian schools. The children most often act as both performers and audiance members in an event that often lasts about an hour.

If Дед Мороз does not come in person, he brings presents at night and кладет подарки под ёлку (puts the presents under the tree). Дед Мороз is usually pictured as using the front door or entering by magic. This is one way that he differs from Santa Claus in the West спускается из камина и оставляет подарки под деревом (coming down the chimney and leaving presents under the tree).

Дед Мороз расшитая шуба с атласным поясом (wears a fir-coat with a satin belt), расшитые рукавицы (embroidered mittens), and сафьяновые сапоги (loose leather boots) or валенки (Russian felt boots). He carries a посох (staff), which is usually described as magical. Unlike many images of Santa in the West, Дед Мороз не носит очков (Grandfather Frost doesn’t wear glasses) and обходится без эльфов (has no elves). He is also usually pictured as a very tall and fit man, despite his age.

Ded Moroz (Grandfather Frost) with Snegurochka (the Snow Maiden).

As for adults, большинство людей празднуют Новый год дома или на даче (most people celebrate at home or at the dacha), most often with a lot of food and a few presents. Often, the TV will be on in the background, playing classic movies such as Ирония судьбы, или С легким паром! (The Irony of Fate, or Enjoy Your Bath!) or special variety programs that aired with very limited commercial breaks thanks to one sponsor that usually gets generous product placement during the show. The most popular of these is called, appropriately, Оливье Шоу (Olivier Show).

Some Russians prefer to выйти в свет (go out). Молодежь любит собираться большими шумными компаниями (young people like to get together in big noisy groups), ходить в гости (pay visits to friends), or отмечать этот праздник в ресторанах, в лесу, на площадях и улицах своих городов у украшенных ёлок (celebrate this holiday in restaurants, in the woods, in their city’s squares and streets around decorated trees). New Year’s Eve spent at a club or restaurant will usually be quite expensive and places must be reserved weeks in advance. For Muscovites, it is increasingly popular to go to Suzdal or some other town near Moscow to встреча Нового года (bring in the New Year), where the experience is cheaper and more rustic.

Another New Year’s tradition is the новогоднее обращение главы государства к народу (president’s New Year’s address to the people). Shortly before midnight, the country’s president выступает с коротким обращением (gives a short address) which is carried on several national channels. The picture then shifts to show кремлевские куранты бьют полночь (Kremlin bell towers strike midnight). At this time, люди встают из-за стола и чокаются бокалами с шампанским (people get up from the table and clink glasses with champagne), and some people кричат «Ура(yell, “Hurray!”).

A screenshot from the film Elki 2 showing a small family gathering with large meal. Note the champaign and oranges on the table.

In some families, people пишут на бумажках желание (write their wishes on paper) and then глотают бумажки (swallow the paper), or just загадывают желание (make a wish). В России на Новый год возлагают особые надежды (in Russia, people have special hopes at the New Year), и независимо от социального положения и возраста в этот день ждут чуда (and regardless of social status and age, they expect miracles on that day). In fact, a whole series of movies were set up around this belief. Appropriately called “Ёлки,” the films bring to together a wide range of characters through complicated plot lines that end up fixing families, finding love, bringing joy, and a whole host of other miracles.

About the author

Andrei Nesterov

Andrei Nesterov has reported on political and social issues for the Russian press as well as American outlets such as Russian Life, Worldpress.org, and Triangle Free Press. He has travelled Russia extensively and penned many stories on the "real Russia" which lies beyond the capital and major cities. Andrei graduated from Ural State University (journalism) and Irkutsk State Linguistic University (English). He studied public policy and journalism at Duke University on a Muskie Fellowship and went on to study TESOL and teach Russian at West Virginia University. He is currently working on an PhD from West Virginia University in Political Science. Andrei contributes news, feature stories, and language resources to the SRAS site, and is an overall linguistics and research resource.

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