When one New Year’s Eve is not enough

A carriage and the main New Year's tree on Dvortsovaya Square in Saint Petersburg. Alexandr Galyperin Sputnik

Winter holidays are something absolutely special for Russians. We even celebrate New Year twice. As much as we love holidays and leisure, there is an unsophisticated historical reason for having not only the New Year’s Day, but also the so-called Old New Year.

The Old New Year is an informal traditional holiday that marks the start of a new year in accordance with the Julian calendar that preceded the Gregorian calendar used by most nations these days. As the Julian calendar is almost a fortnight behind the Gregorian one, the Old New Year falls on January 14 (with the celebration on the evening of January 13). Despite all the business activities being in full swing by that time, most Russians find the eve of the Old New Year a nice excuse to round up the holiday cycle with yet another festivity.

One way or another, how do you celebrate the New Year the Russian way?

The essentials include a beautifully decorated New Year tree with a pile of gifts brought by Father Frost, a lavish dinner with family and friends that lasts at the very least till midnight, an address to the nation by the President and colorful fireworks. The tradition of putting a spruce (alternatively pine or fir) tree and decorating it with a variety of festoons and baubles dates back to 1699 when tsar (emperor since 1721) Peter the Great issued a decree ordering to celebrate the New Year on 1 January instead of 1 September. The same decree laid out the guidelines of celebrating it in a new fashion.

The custom was interrupted only for a number of years between 1916 and 1928 – first during the World War I due to associations with the culture of the opposing side and afterwards in the Soviet times because of its links to Christmas traditions. However, after the ban was lifted the practice established itself so firmly that nowadays celebrating the holiday without a New Year tree is positively unimaginable.

The New Year tree has always been an immense source of joy for young and old alike. Besides the beauty of it and the holiday cheer it radiates, at the foot of the New Year tree one is almost certain to find presents. There are no rules as far as what the gift should contain. Ideally, that would be something that appears on one’s wish list. For that to come true children write letters to Father Frost who is believed to be the gift giver on the occasion of the New Year.

Father Frost or Ded Moroz as we call him is a fictional character with roots in Slavic pagan mythology. Over time, the image of Father Frost changed under the influence of classical literature and music and ultimately gained great popularity. One of the most prominent Russian composers Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov created an opera that features Father Frost – “The Snow Maiden” – around 1880–1881, which is in turn based on a theatre play by Alexander Ostrovsky dated 1873.

Today a typical Ded Moroz is a kind elderly white-bearded man who spoils good kids with presents. He is usually dressed in a heel-length fur coat and a fur hat. His feet are clad in valenki – traditional Russian winter footwear made of wool felt. What sets Father Frost apart from many other similar characters is the presence of his lovely granddaughter Snegurochka (the Snow Maiden) who always accompanies him on his journeys. Her role is that one of the helper of Ded Moroz and she is the all-time favorite at New Year parties for children.

While its only kids who believe in the wizard-Ded Moroz, the New Year holidays is the magical time when we all dream of miracles and wonders. White snowy landscapes and brightly illuminated cities take you to a fairytale. Anticipation and happiness is in the air. For the majority of Russians the New Year means family time. One might image a lull in activities, but that is not the Russian way to do things. 

Unlike in many countries around the world a long holiday period is by no means a reason to delay your visit to the country. A multitude of shops and entertainment facilities stay open, sometimes even around the clock. An incredible number of holiday-related attractions spring up. The New Year holidays is a great time for both locals and visitors to Russia.

Roman Ambarov is the Consul General of Russia located in Cape Town.