New Year is one of Russia’s most important holidays. When Christmas was banned during the Soviet era, many of its associated traditions were transplanted to New Year. It became a dedicated day for getting family and friends together around the (New Year) tree, gift-giving and eating too much. Today, while Christmas is back in the calendar, New Year hasn’t still lost its status. From Father Frost to Herring in Fur Coats, here are some of the best New Years traditions in Russia
New Years Traditions in Russia
1. Start the year with a good scrub
In Russia, New Years Day is a time to forgive those who have wronged you, pay off your debts and give your house a good tidy. As well as cleaning the house, many Russians will start the year with a clean body and soul too by booking a banya – a Russian sauna – or at the very least take an incredibly hot bath on the 31st December.
Banyas are an integral part of Russian culture. They typically involve a steam room featuring wooden benches along the perimeter and an altar-like bench in the centre of the room for treatments. The treatment using involves being thrashed by large birch leaves then dunked in a bucket or pool of ice-cold water. The Sanduny Baths are Moscow’s most famous. In Siberia, people will traditionally lie outside in the snow instead of submerging themselves in cold water. Frosty.
2. Mark the occasion with a screwball comedy
Every year, millions of people in Russia tune in to watch the 1976 Soviet screwball classic, The Irony of Fate. In the film, protagonist Zhenya plans to spend his New Years’ Eve with his fiancee, but after getting drunk with his pals at the Sanduny Baths he ends up on a flight to St. Petersburg instead. He drunkenly orders a taxi to the place he thinks is his home, only to be woken up by the unsuspecting Nadya. We won’t spoil the ending for you.
3. Celebrate twice!
There are actually two New Year’s Eves in Russia. The ‘Old’ New Year’s Eve takes place on January 14th according to the Orthodox or Julian calendar. This celebration is usually much smaller than the first event. The ‘New’ New Year’s Eve takes place on December 31st, along with the rest of the western world. This has now superseded the old celebrations as the most important day in the calendar.
It was only recognised as a holiday when Russia switched from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar. During the Soviet era, Christmas was banned so New Years’ Eve became the day to celebrate.
4. It’s not a wish until you’ve done these three things…
In Russia, thinking about what you would like to happen next year isn’t really going to cut it. You need to put some serious effort into making sure your dream comes true. First, you need to write it down on a piece of paper. Then, you need to burn it. And then, you need to pop those ashes into a glass of champagne and take a big swig.
5. Get ready for Ded Moroz (Father Frost)
Ded Moroz – or Father Frost– is the Russian equivalent of Santa Clause. Unlike Santa, he tends to show up on New Years’ Eve baring gifts for well-behaved children. He wears a long blue or red fur coat, a matching hat, felt boots and carries gifts in a big sack on his back. He doesn’t need any reindeer to get him around though. Being an athletic Russian man, he skis, hikes or hops on a troika carriage to get around the country. He also carries a magical staff that he uses to freeze everything around him. And, unlike Santa, he doesn’t creep around in the night, he’s happy to show his face and stop by at a holiday party to give out the presents.
He’s also joined by his granddaughter, Snegurichka, the Snow Maiden. She’s never too far away, usually wearing a blue and white fur coat with a long blond braid. She supposedly lives in Kostroma, on the Volga, while Grandfather Frost lives out near Veliky Ustyug, in the Vologda Region
6. Celebrate with salad
If you’ve ever been to Russia, you’ll know that salads are a pretty big deal here. Not the light leaf variety either, but hearty dishes covered in at least a kilogram of mayonnaise – and New Year’s Eve is no exception. You’ll usually spot a few familiar salads on the table, including the ‘Olivier Salad’ (made with mayo, potatoes, carrots, green peas, eggs and chicken) and the ‘Herring under Fur Coat’ (layered herring, potatoes, carrots, beetroot and mayonnaise).
Other popular feasting food includes champagne – usually, the Sovietskoye sort – and caviar served on buttered bread. Surprisingly, mandarin oranges are a staple too. The tradition dates back to Nicholas II but was only resurrected in the late 1970s when the Soviet authorities began importing them again.
7. Check in with Putin at midnight
Moments before the clock strikes midnight at the Spasskaya Tower, Russians switch on the TV to hear the presidents speech. Much like the Queen’s speech in the UK, the Russian president will offer his wishes for the upcoming year and reflect on significant moments from the last one. When he’s finished, the clock tower chimes, the fireworks kick-off and the New Year officially begins.
In Russia, New Year’s Eve is a family celebration, so partying doesn’t tend to start after midnight. Once everyone’s bid good night to Putin and toasted to the new year, Russians head out to nightclubs and bars, which will only usually open on New Years’ Eve after midnight.