Until the 16th century, Tsarist Russia celebrated the beginning of the year on September 1, as according to the Julian calendar. On the eve of 1700, Tsar Peter the Great, who greatly desired a closer alignment of Russia with the Western world, issued a decree swapping out the Julian calendar for the Gregorian and stating that Russia too would celebrate the first day of the new year on January 1. This edict also outlined the manner in which the celebrations should be carried out: Russian residents would place coniferous trees or branches at the entrance to their homes and yards for decoration and to light bonfires, and a barrage of cannonballs and fireworks would be fired from the Kremlin in the evening. read more
With the Bolshevik victory and the establishment of the Communist regime in 1917, the government banned all religious observance, including New Years celebrations. Judaism was also banned, and any Jew found studying Torah or celebrating Jewish holidays faced punishment.
In December 1935 a letter by Pavel Postyshev, a senior member of the party, was published in Pravda, the Communist party newspaper. Postyshev argued that celebrating the New Year would make both the children and members of the Soviet working class happy, and suggested celebrating Novy God (New Year) by displaying trees in educational institutions, cinemas and theater halls. The Soviet authorities relented and approved “Novy God” in its secular and civil form, and in 1948, January 1 became an official holiday.
The new holiday borrowed myths from Slavic mythology – such as Ded Moroz and Snegurochka, Grandfather Frost and his granddaughter The Snow Maiden, who bring gifts to children – and combined them with Christian symbols adapted to the Soviet regime. Thus, for example, a pentagram was placed at the top of the New Years tree (yolka) instead of a Star of Bethlehem, and secular ornaments in the forms of the Kremlin towers, Soviet astronauts, and sheaves of wheat adorned its branches. The Jews also contributed some holiday customs, for example gifts and pocket money to children, in lieu of Hanukkah gelt.
What do you eat on Novy God?
The austerity of life in Soviet Russia is set aside for a culinary celebration that continues late into the night. Crystal vessels, festive cutlery and white tablecloths adorn the table, and the food is plentiful.
The Novy God meal includes a variety of zakuski (“small bites” in literal translation) – plates of cold hors d’oeuvres catered to complement the copious drinking of alcohol: pickled fish, caviar, shellfish, hot dogs and sausages, deviled eggs, cooked salads such as potato and shoba salad, and also various types of dumplings, like Pirozhki and Pelmeni.