Russian New Year’s – Lay Off Us!!
To the casual observer, Russian New Year’s is just a combination of Christmas and New Year’s Eve. There’s the Christmas dinner, the exchanging of gifts, champagne, and watching the clock. However, this is a superficial difference. New Year’s is something entirely alien; America is a country of Puritans – Russian New Year’s is a bacchanalia ratting the windows. Although it begins with very stout traditions, the main idea is “don’t touch us for two weeks! Lay off our Russian people from the first to the thirteenth of January!!”, to quote a Russian song.
Tradition Number 1: Olivye Salad. Like all Russian salads, this is a mayonnaise based heart-attack. It began as a concoction of expensive meats with mayonnaise in pre-Revolutionary Russia, and after Sovietization slowly became a vegetable-based pastiche with mayonnaise; unlike in America, where every family makes their own Christmas dinner, in Russia, a New Year’s without Olivye Salad is like Christmas without a tree.
Tradition Number 2: The President’s Speech. Can you imagine Americans all gathering round to listen to the President at Christmas or New Year’s as we raise our champagne flutes? Of course not. But that’s probably because Dick Clark spent 40 years introducing us to people we like more than our Presidents – rock stars. In Russia, the President gets the last 10 minutes before the clock strikes midnight to tell everyone how great they all are, and insert a bit of national pride into their holiday mood. This year, Putin used it to “welcome Crimea home”, as he put it.
Tradition Number 3: Drink your burning wishes! The moment the President has stopped speechifying (everything in Russia is recorded ahead of time: check out the ridiculously staged everything in annual New Year’s program – it’s recorded in October, apparently) the clock strikes midnight. You then have to immediately write down your heart’s deepest desire on a little piece of paper or, more often than not, napkin, light it on fire, toss the burning scrap into your champagne flute, and drink it up before the clock stops striking.
All of this is somewhat superficial though. The main difference is what comes after New Year’s: another ten days off work (usually, the break starts several days before New Years) . Of course, there are stores that are open, but they also show how different this holiday is from the American counterpart. The shelves aren’t restocked for several days afterwards. Presumably, they’re presuming that everyone is eating holiday leftovers, kind the week of turkey sandwiches, turkey soup, and other turkey remains following Thanksgiving. I, having not planned for this, am subsisting on cured sausages, mussels, and kompote, a juice made from boiled fruit, having ventured out onto the empty streets to find that the shelves of the open stores have yet to be restocked.
Visits with family, excessive drinking, getting out of the city, vacations to Europe or Turkey generally commence the 3rd of 4th of January – the 2nd is devoted to sleep and rehydration. There doesn’t seem to be anything else particularly unusual about what the Russians do with those two weeks; but it’s the fact of the two weeks that is remarkable and unusual. What on earth would we do in the US with required two weeks off?