One of the signs of getting older is when the decade of your childhood is designated as “historic.” Since I grew up in a country that no longer exists, that makes sense. I was born in the Soviet Union, or the USSR, in 1979 and left the country in 1991. I’m from Kyiv, the capital of now independent Ukraine. Had I been born ten years later, I’d likely have grown up speaking Ukrainian and learning revived traditions of Ukrainian people. But as a Soviet kid, I had a similar childhood to my husband in Moscow or my friends in Minsk. Our predominant language was Russian. Our chief winter holiday was New Year. While I’m recalling my memories, the practices were similar across the country.
When the Soviet Union formed in 1917, the leaders banned all religious holidays, including the lavish Christmas celebrations popularized by Peter the Great. Hanukkah, and other Jewish holidays, were celebrated quietly before the revolution, and not celebrated at all after it. But in 1935, the country suffered from famine, and General Secretary Joseph Stalin wanted to restore some holiday cheer. The elements of Christmas were reinterpreted to suit the Soviet ideology, without any religious meaning. New Year’s Day became a national holiday, celebrated with hope and joy for the new beginning.
The center of the holiday was the New Year tree. My family would purchase it at a nearby bazaar and drag it home on foot or in public transportation. (Almost no one had cars). We’d repot the tree in a bucket of dirt and then hide the bucket under a mound of cotton balls, making it look like it was standing in the snow. Then we would dig out our gorgeous, glass-blown figurines that used to cost only a few kopeks. Strings of lights and streaks of silver paper would complete the decoration. For good measure, we would sing a song about the tree, such as A Little Fir was Born in the Forest.
Soviet children loved New Year for the same reason American kids look forward to Christmas: the presents, of course. The giver of these presents was not Santa, but a similar character, Ded Moroz (Grandfather Frost). He had a long silver or blue coat, a white beard, and a booming voice. If he came to the holiday celebration, he’d ring the doorbell. No climbing down chimneys. He’d make the children earn their gifts, usually by making them recite poetry. Instead of cookies, he preferred a shot of vodka with Dad.
While Ded Moroz was a bit intimidating with his red nose and deep voice, all the children loved his granddaughter, Snegurochka (Snow Maiden). It was unclear who her parents were, and some believed she was made of snow. The stories about her varied from adventurous to tragic. She was unfailingly pretty, with hair weaved into a braid, and a lovely crown on her head. Her role was to assist her grandfather in giving presents and ensure he doesn’t drink too much (the second function doesn’t appear in fairy tales but was often witnessed by kids of my generation.)
No, this picture is not from my family’s holiday table. This was the vision of a holiday we would all have, once Communism was built. Everyone was familiar with this picture. It came from The Book of Tasty and Healthy Food, our national cookbook with the foreword from Stalin, originally published in 1939. While it was impossible to find ingredients for many dishes, Soviet people went to great lengths to purchase some delights for the New Year’s celebration. Salad Olivier lacked the exotic ingredients its Belgian inventor used, yet the mayonnaise-drenched dish appeared on most tables, to be washed down with Soviet Champagne. The luckiest of families feasted on red or even black caviar. My favorite breakfast as a seven-year-old was a black caviar sandwich with instant coffee.
I’ve promised my friends that this coming Christmas season I will finally watch It’s a Wonderful Life. I was always too busy rewatching the most iconic Soviet holiday movie, The Irony of Fate, or Enjoy Your Bath! Made in 1976, the sweet and witty romcom miraculously got past the censures and entertained the Soviet people every New Year. Fifty years later, it’s still popular, and the songs are well-known.
I’ve been living in the United States for over thirty years. Overtime, I’ve embraced my Jewish roots. My family lights the Hanukkah candles, and I made excellent potato latkes. The artificial tree with non-breakable ornaments we put up has been rebranded into a “Hanukkah Bush.”
Our New Year is still the biggest celebration of the holiday season. There’s Salad Olivier and champagne, a gift under the tree from Ded Moroz, and the stories of how our parents managed to arrange amazing celebrations despite the lack of money, empty shelves in the stores, and enormous queues one had to wait in when shopping. We are glad that throwing a party is so much easier in the US. The only problem is that after the New York Ball Drop, there’s nothing interesting on TV. And that’s when someone says, “Can’t we stream the Channel One and watch The Irony of Fate?”
Alina Rubin loves writing historical fiction about heroines with strong voices and able hands. Her debut novel, A Girl with a Knife, won the Illinois Author Project competition. When not working or writing, Alina enjoys yoga, reading and traveling.