Photo: Courtesy of Yelena Shuster.
Growing up as a Soviet-immigrant Jew in America presented a range of cultural challenges throughout my childhood, but none were quite as awkward as having to explain why I had a Christmas tree in my house. Usually, I'd shrug off the faux-Hanukkah bush as a "Russian New Year's thing" because I never really understood it either. But, I knew — judging by the black-and-white photos of little-kid me by a glittering tree — that we had been celebrating Noviy God (New Year) devotedly since we lived in the Soviet Union, and so had all of our other Russian family and friends.
It wasn't until college that I learned this widespread tradition only started in the '30s, when Stalin replaced Christmas with a Communist-approved, secular knockoff. So, instead of celebrating Jesus’ birth on December 25, we celebrate the New Year on December 31, effectively erasing any religious connotations from the occasion. Santa Claus was replaced with jolly-faced, white-bearded Grandfather Frost. Rudolph and the elves were swapped for Frost's granddaughter-assistant, Snow Girl. There is no eggnog, no mistletoe, no gingerbread cookies. Instead, there is vodka, dill, and Napoleon cake. The one nearly indistinguishable feature tying the two holidays together? The gifts sitting pretty under a suspiciously familiar bedecked and bedazzled tree. (Gotta give Stalin credit for mythical re-appropriation.)
Photo: Courtesy of Yelena Shuster.
Of course, drinking is a major component as well. Stereotypically speaking, Russians have a bad reputation with alcohol, and the inebriation on New Year's is so infamous that an iconic Soviet rom-com The Irony of Fate uses extreme drinking around this holiday as a major plot point. A guy gets so drunk celebrating Noviy God that he boards a flight to Moscow instead of St. Petersburg and, because of the Soviet Union’s uniform prefab architecture, was able to use his key at an identical apartment building — leading to a meet-cute with the startled blonde who finds him sleeping off his hangover on her sofa. The movie is such a classic that, to this day, it’s played nonstop on New Year's Eve on Russian satellite channels all over America.
So, yes, vodka shots are involved, but the drinking is so much more than just an excuse to get wasted. It's a moment for love and reflection. Every last shot goes down smooth with a bite of herring and an Alexander Pushkin-worthy speech. You are probably familiar with the basic nazdarovya (to health) or the Hebrew l'chaim (to life), but we also drink to the old year, the new year, the hosts, the food, the children, the parents, the grandparents, and those who are no longer with us. Everyone is wished good fortune, happiness, and success. And, it’s not uncommon for the toasts to give way to sudden tears.
Oh, and the dinner table is full of zakuski — salty or pickled appetizers that promise to prevent a hangover — which are taken with each shot. This is the beginning of a three-course meal that starts at 10 p.m. and lasts until at least 3 a.m. In preparation for this marathon of revelry, midday naps are encouraged.
My master-chef mom and babushka devote hours to kitchen preparations, whipping up chicken pierogies, gefilte fish, and Olivier and shuba salads (all from scratch), while my sister and I are consigned to the more remedial tasks of slicing, dicing, and setting the table with a gorgeous silk tablecloth and our best dishes. And, then, we don our finest attire. Russian women are notorious for overdressing: In Moscow, the ladies dress up for work as if they're stopping by a nightclub first — skintight dresses and stilettos are normal office attire. The over-the-top style carries on in the States, albeit on special occasions only, with diamonds, designer finery, and décolletage. No sweatpants or UGGs here.
Like so many other pieces of our lives in the States, Noviy God feels like a haphazard culture clash much of the time. We speak in Russian, eat Russian food, and watch Russian TV for a special yearly concert featuring the Russian pop stars of yesteryear, preserved with too much rouge and plastic interference. But, right before midnight, the vodka is replaced by the more American custom of bubbly, the channel is switched to the ball drop in Times Square, and everyone in the family counts down in their best English: "Zree, two, von!"
So, while my friends prefer to fly home for Thanksgiving or Christmas, I always fly back for New Year’s. Nothing makes me feel closer to my family than helping to decorate the tree, wrap the gifts, prepare the food, and toast my heart out. In fact, I miss the custom so much throughout the rest of the year that drinking without it almost feels meaningless — and I force my friends to toast even before sips of wine (“to...uh...you!”). My family left the Soviet Union to escape anti-Semitism, but along with our suitcases of clothes, recipes, and photos, some traditions could not be left behind. And, I'm grateful that it wasn't, because to me Noviy God will always feel like home.