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What Do You Celebrate?

A smiling little girl in a white dress sitting on a couch with Santa in a red suit.

This is the question I’m asked when a year comes to an end and the holiday season starts. Is it Christmas? Chanukkah? My answer is …

New Year.

Yes, New Year. I was born and raised in Soviet Russia. I did not grow up with any religion. My family and I had a secular upbringing. 

During the Soviet times, religious holidays were not allowed after the October revolution of 1917 until the dissolution of the USSR in 1991. Even now that Christmas and other religious holidays can be celebrated, New Year is still the most popular winter holiday in Russia, much more popular than Christmas.

Another thing to mention is that Russians celebrate Christmas on January 7, not December 25. To those who celebrate Christmas, we say Happy New Year and Merry Christmas (“С Новым годом и Рождеством!”), not Merry Christmas and Happy New Year like here in the USA or Europe.

Why is the New Year celebration so popular in Russia? And why is Christmas celebrated on January 7, not December 25?

Prior to the October Revolution of 1917, the Russian Empire followed the Julian calendar.

When reading the history of Russia before the revolution, you would notice dates of someone’s birth/death/marriage or some public event using both “old and new” calendar styles. Old style means following the Julian calendar while new style means following the Gregorian calendar.

After the revolution, the Bolsheviks decided to switch to the Gregorian calendar to follow the rest of the world.

The Russian Orthodox Church decided to stay with the Julian calendar, so they celebrate Christmas on January 7 and New Year on January 14. The Julian calendar is about 2 weeks behind the Gregorian calendar.

Since the Soviet Union became a secular country in 1917, any and all religious holidays were banned. Even Christmas trees were banned until 1935 when they were renamed into “New Year” trees. In Russian it’s “новогодняя елка.”

It was when the New Year tradition started in the Soviet Union and eventually became the popular holiday.

The western countries have Santa that flies with reindeers, uses elves as helpers, and goes down the chimney to leave presents under the Christmas tree.

In Russia, it’s Ded Moroz (“Дед Мороз” – Father Frost), usually tall and slim and dressed in a long blue or red coat. He travels with his granddaughter Snegurochka (“Снегурочка” – Snow Maiden), dressed in a long blue or white coat and wearing long braids. They ride a troika, a trio of horses pulling a sleigh, and give gifts to kids in person.

The end of December has lots of events for kids called “yolka.” There kids play games, recite poems, circle a New Year tree holding each others’ hands, and get gifts from Ded Moroz and Snegurochka. The events are held in many places – schools, clubs, public and private places.

I remember an annual yolka in my school. A high school boy was dressed as Ded Moroz. A high school girl was dressed as Snegurochka. They, along with some other kids, made various holiday performances. 

I also attended yolkas at a club for the deaf, workplaces of my parents, grandparents, and other relatives, and also some public places like indoor sport stadiums.

We get together on New Year’s eve every year on December 31.

We prepare lots of food. The Russian New Year food staple is Olivier salad. It includes potatoes, carrots, pickles, green peas, eggs, chicken or bologna, and mayonnaise. 

Russian TV has lots of movies and shows as well as New Year performances by Russian celebrities. A few minutes before midnight, we listen to the New Year’s speech by the president.

The most popular New Year movie in Russia is “Ирония судьбы или С легким паром!” (“Irony of Fate or Enjoy Your Bath!”) It’s shown every year on New Year’s Eve.

When growing up, I couldn’t follow that movie as it had no captions. Neither could follow any other movies, new year performances as well as president’s New Year address.

In the past few years, I’m pleased to see more New Year content in Russian accessible via Russian captions. Since my parents’ TV doesn’t have support for Russian captions, I follow it online. Some Russian channels show Russian captions online though not 100%.

Since my family and I are now based in the USA, it has become our tradition to celebrate New Year with a champagne toast at 4 pm NYC time (when it is midnight in Moscow) then again at midnight local time.

We watch and hear on TV and online the bells ringing in the Moscow Kremlin at midnight after the President’s New Year Address. Then we watch on TV a ball dropping in Times Square in NYC. Between those times, we alternate watching Russian and American performances on TV or online – in addition to talking to each other.

We also celebrate Christmas. Twice – on December 25 and January 7. We celebrate New Year twice as well – on January 1 and 14. So our “New Year” tree is up from early December until early January or mid January.

When people ask me what holiday to wish me, I tell them that I celebrate New Year.

I won’t be offended, however, if they wish me Merry Christmas, or Happy Hanukkah, or any winter holiday. I appreciate any holiday greeting because a person makes a good wish for me and spreads a good energy.

Personally, I usually say Happy Holidays to people if I don’t know what they celebrate.

To Russian speakers, I say:

  • “С наступающим!” (With the coming new year!) before the new year,
  • “С Новым годом!” (Happy New Year!) at the stroke of midnight, and
  • “С наступившим!” (Happy New Year that has already come!) after January 1.

Below are links if you are interested to learn more about Russian celebrations in winter.

To those wondering if it’s me on the picture above, yes it is me in a white dress made by my mother. I’m with Ded Moroz. Back then I believed he was real. Even though I stopped believing in Ded Moroz as I got older, it still didn’t make me stop loving New Year and all magic associated with it.

С наступающим! 🥳 🎉 🥂

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Links about Russian celebrations in winter:

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