In Russia, New Year celebrations are taken very seriously indeed; even Christmas pales into insignificance when compared to the rollicking festivities that take place across the country from 31st December. New Year is celebrated not once, but twice here. The Old New Year, in the first half of January, marks the start of the year in the Orthodox calendar. Meaning that there is a wealth of full-throttle festivities that continue until the second week in January. Here’s how to have an unforgettable Russian New Year.
It’s tempting to equate Russia’s Grandfather Frost with Father Christmas, but this isn’t exactly right. Ded Moroz was inspired by the mighty Pagan god of the Eastern Slavic people. A blacksmith who forges ice from water and blankets the landscape with snow, he symbolises the bitter Russian winter. But this doesn’t make him a vengeful or sinister figure in Russian culture. In fact, he is considered a guardian, capable of bringing winters so extreme as to repel or destroy any invading force. What’s more, unlike Father Christmas, the spirit of Ded Moroz sees Russia well into the New Year.
New Year celebrations in Russia are served with endless feasts. Tradition holds that an abundance of food at the end of the year will mean a plentiful supply throughout the next. And we’re not referring to any old buffet – these feasts to involve elaborate and sizeable dishes. One such seasonal delicacy is Selyodka Pod Shuboy, or Herring Under Fur Coat. This layered salad of diced pickled herring, grated vegetables, chopped onions, eggs and mayonnaise may resemble a fluorescent gateau, but it’s nevertheless delicious.
The Russian president makes a speech five minutes before the Kremlin’s Spasskaya Tower clock strikes midnight. Then the countdown begins. This is when to make a wish. To increase its chances of coming true, write it down, burn the paper, and drink the ashes during the C Novim Godom, or Happy New Year toast. If in St. Petersburg, join the locals for the countdown at the epicentre of the New Year celebrations in Palace Square. In Moscow, head to the famous Red Square. Any guide to Russian New Year should also point out that the parties don’t get started until after midnight, not before.
It’s almost impossible to avoid getting caught up in the festivities that roll on through the beginning of January. In St. Petersburg, fireworks over the Neva River mark the start of the first New Year, while in Moscow, the sky is lit up over Red Square. In all the major cities from then on, there are street festivals, skiing, ice-skating, and fierce snowball fights among children. The Christmas trees (yolka), some of which are impressive giant firs, remain for as long as the celebrations continue.
Russians mark the Old New Year with yet another feast, albeit a slightly smaller one. Old New Year’s Day is also St. Basil’s Day, and since he is the patron saint of pig breeders and pork products, expect plenty of sausages and hog roasts. On the night before St. Basil’s Day, guests are traditionally offered pork pies and a roast is usually served on the day. It was once widely believed that whatever was foretold by fortune-tellers on St. Basil’s Day would almost certainly come true.
Murder, intrigue, crime and punishment… St Petersburg has it all. Those fascinated by the more ghoulish side of history will love these significant spots from fiction, and real life.