While the Western world unwinds from the year’s biggest holiday, Christmas Day, albeit one that looked strikingly different from previous years, Russia and the former Soviet satellite states prepare for their biggest holiday of the year — New Year. Soviet officials effectively banned public celebration of Christmas and religious holy days, but even they could not strip their citizenry of the spirit of the world’s most widely celebrated religious holiday.
After the Soviets outlawed Christmas, their citizens looked to New Year celebrations for the renewal, spirit, and cheer that so many of us receive from Christmas celebrations, and they took previous Christmas traditions with them. For, as the Soviets learned, a government can rid a society of religion, but it can never be rid of the traditions, essence, and memories that come with it.
Christmas as a holiday was officially banned during the early Soviet period. Before this, it was widely popular for Russians to celebrate Christmas with decorated trees. The tradition of decorated trees, however, was first banned not by the Soviet regime, but under the tsarist period while Russia fought Germany in World War I, as the Christmas tree has German roots.
Bolsheviks continued this ban after the October Revolution, and it wasn’t until 1935 that Joseph Stalin revived the tradition of decorated trees. This revival had nothing to do with Christmas since the Soviets had been hard at work to erase religious celebrations from memory. Instead, high-level Soviet officials convinced Stalin to resurrect the decorated trees for a secular holiday.
The tradition of New Year’s trees in the Soviet Union was born. Today, despite being a predominantly Christian Orthodox country in which Christmas is celebrated on January 7 in accordance to the Julian calendar, Russians (and citizens throughout the post-Soviet space) utilize the tree as a pillar of New Year’s celebrations.
In 1947, people in the Soviet Union were officially allowed to celebrate New Year beyond just decorated trees, and thus even more Christmas traditions were revived. Just as the early Soviets considered the festive tree to be bourgeois, so they also considered the Slavic Santa “Ded Moroz” to be. He was banned in 1917, but reinstated under Stalin just as the tree had been.
Ded Moroz, donned in a blue (sometimes red) coat, came bearing gifts each New Year’s Eve, just like his Western counterpart, Santa Claus. Although, of course, to make up for this questionable Communist behavior, he would often lecture children on how to be good Communists and better the socialist society.
Each New Year’s Eve around eleven o’clock, Soviet citizens would gather around the table to indulge in a boisterous meal before the arrival of Ded Moroz and official commencing of the New Year. This traditional start time for New Year’s celebrations continues in Russia and the post-Soviet space today, along with numerous other Soviet New Year’s traditions.
Today, no Russian New Year table is complete without dishes such as Olivier salad, a cold salad made with sliced pork sausage, boiled potatoes, peas, eggs, carrots, onions, and topped with a big portion of mayonnaise, or Vinegret salad, made from beetroot and often mixed with boiled potatoes, carrots, and small peas.
New Year remains the most widely-celebrated holiday in Russia today, though it doesn’t resemble New Year celebrations that many in the west would envision today. There is something distinctly spiritual about Russian and post-Soviet New Year’s celebrations, in large part thanks to its (sometimes advertent and sometimes inadvertent) “Christmasization” by the Soviet government.
It became the most celebrated nonideological holiday in the Soviet Union, as Soviet leaders, namely Stalin himself, realized that humans need the unadulterated joy that comes with the hope, reflection, and good cheer of each passing Christmas. Such spiritual undertones of an otherwise secular celebration exemplify what the Soviets eventually learned — you can formally rid society of religion, but eventually historical memory and spiritual hunger will allow it to find its way back.