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A Russian New Year
Until the end of the 15th century, the new year began on 1 March in Old Rus (as in Ancient Rome), and then until the end of the 17th century it began on 1 September (as in Byzantium). With his decree “On Celebrating the New Year” at the end of 1699, Peter the Great replaced the practice of counting years “from the creation of the world” to “from the birth of Christ.” Since then, Russia has celebrated the New Year in European fashion.
With one flourish of the pen, Peter the Great transferred Rus from the year 7208 to 1700. Then, the tsar cited the tradition of “European Christian countries,” including the Slavs and Orthodox Serbs, Moldavians, Bulgarians, and Greeks. “And now the year 1699 since the birth of Christ is arrived, and from the first day of the coming January the new year, 1700, and a new century will begin; and for this good an useful cause I have ordered hence for the year to be counted in all orders, and all business and garrisons, from the first of this January as the year 1700 since the birth of Christ,” said the tsar’s decree.
The tsar also ordered the coming of the new year and new century to be celebrated as in Europe: “after due thanks has been rendered to God and the prayers have been sung in church, whosoever is concerned shall in their homes, along the major streets and eminent throughways, among distinguished individuals, and in the homes of important persons of spiritual and lay ranks, shall establish certain decorations from trees and boughs of pine, fir, and juniper.”
People had a simple outlook. The tsar was father and lord to all of his subjects, and therefore there’s nothing surprising about the fact that the decree also regulated how to celebrate the first day of the new year in some detail: what to shoot on the occasion of the holiday (analogous to a celebratory salvo), how many times to fire it, and how and when to light the celebratory bonfires.
[Unknown artist, “Announcement of Peter the Great’s Order to Count the New Year Starting on 1 January”]
“Such ringing had not been heard in Moscow for a long time. They said: Patriarch Adrian, not daring to contradict the tsar in any way, gave the bell-ringers a thousand rubles and fifty barrels of the patriarch’s strong beer. Squatting, they rang the bells in the steeples and bell towers. Moscow was wrapped in smoke and fumes from the horses and people…
Through the ringing of the bells all across Moscow, shots crackled and cannons bellowed in a bass. Dozens of sledges rushed along at a gallop, full of drunkards and mummer smeared with soot and wearing their fur coats inside out. The riders stretched their legs, waved around bottles, raised a ruckus, and on the slopes they would roll out in heaps at the feet of the simple people, who had grown woozy from the ringing and smoke…” (A. Tolstoi, Peter I)
The custom of decorating houses with coniferous branches and trees was forgotten after Peter the Great’s death, and it was renewed only toward the end of the 18th century. One way or another, the tradition of widely celebrating Christmas and the New Year in Russia has been around now for more than three hundred years, and that’s no joke. In this time, masquerades, all kinds of merriments, festival firs, and the other attributes of the winter holiday have made a lasting contribution to Russian life, and to Russian art as well.
[Vasily Surikov, “Great Masquerade of 1722 on the streets of Moscow Involving Peter 1 and Lord Prince I. F. Romodanovsky,” 1900]
[Boris Kustodiev, “Fir Tree Sale,” 1918]
[Sergei Dosekin, “Getting Ready for Christmas,” 1896]
[Viktor Vasnetsov, “Snegurochka,” 1899]
[Konstyantyn Trutovsky, “Carols in Little Russia,” 1864]
[Nikolai Feshin, “Christmas celebration,” 1917]
Up until the early 20th century, the fir tree and accompanying celebration were considered a Christmas tradition. When they came to power, the Bolsheviks adopted the tactics of Christianity in its fight against paganism: they maintained the holiday, but in a severely reduced form. Every association with Christ’s birth was driven away.
Despite the popularity of the subject “Lenin at a holiday party” in Soviet painting, in reality the fir tree and Old Man Frost were abolished in Soviet Russia in the early 1920s. In 1929, the Christmas holiday was officially abolished as well. After a little “rebranding,” it returned as the New Year’s holiday in 1935, on the recommendation of Alexander Poskrebyshev, Head of the Special Section of the Central Committee.
[Unknown Artist, “V.I. Lenin at a celebration in Sokolniki”]
“Vladimir Dmitrievich, would you like to take part in a children’s holiday?” Vladimir Ilich [Lenin] asked me.
“I would,” I said.
“Well then, go somewhere to get gingerbread cookies, candies, bread, noise makers, and toys, and we’ll go tomorrow to drop in on Nadya at the school. We’ll have a celebration for the children, and here’s some money for the expenses.” (Vladimir Bonch-Bruevich, “At a School Holiday Party”).
In 1935, the fir tree, Old Man Frost, and gifts under the tree appeared once again. But the attributes of the old Christmas celebration now passed on to New Year’s. Two years later, Father Frost took on a constant companion at holiday celebrations—Snegurochka. It was at this time that the holiday acquired its canonic look, which is how we all know it.
[Tamara Zebrova, “Children’s Holiday,” 1941]
[Aleksandr Guliaev, “New Year,” 1967]
In 1954, the most important fir tree in the country was lit for the first time—the one at the Kremlin.
[Ivan Tikhii, “For you and your friends, the fir tree at the Kremlin shines brightly every year.”
Illustration in Barvinok magazine, 1956]
Over time, new details emerged: the mandatory mandarins, champagne, and Olivier salad on the table; the playing of chimes, at which time one must make a wish; a ceremonial address from the head of state. New Year’s sparklers and table spreads came into fashion.
[Olga Vorob’eva, “Happy New Year!” 2009]
[Andrei Andrianov, “Mayonnaise Salad,” 2012]
[Liudmila Pipchenko, Illustration to E. Rakitina’s The Adventures of New Year’s Toys]