Before the beginning of the 18th century, the Slavs had a completely different calendar and New Year occurred on September 21, 22 or 23 on the days of the fall equinox. By that time, the harvest gathering had been finished, the fields had been cleaned up and the provisions for the long winter had been prepared. The period of holidays and wedding celebrations was approaching. People thanked the Creator for their good harvest and wished each other prosperity and happiness for the new year. This holiday was called Novoletie. The word ‘year’ (‘god’ in Russian) did not exist back then and instead of this word there was the word ‘leto’ (‘summer’ in English). That is where the words ’letopis’ (chronicles), ‘letoischislenie’ (chronology) came from. Even in everyday life we usually ask our interlocutor in Russian, ‘How old are you?’ using the word ‘let’ and not ‘years’.
But by a decree of Peter the Great, after December 31 7208 it would be January 1 1700, and the Julian calendar was introduced.
The Tsar ordered, ‘…as a sign of a good initiative and a new hundredth year to congratulate each other with joy for the New Year… On large and thoroughfare streets at house gates to set up some decorations made out of trees and the branches of pine, fir and juniper trees… start shooting out of small cannons and guns, send rockets as many as people can and light fires!’
It took people a long time to get used to the new strange celebration with the strange name of ‘New Year’. What kind of year is that and what is it for? It is strange, but even in our days hardly anyone thinks about the ‘strange’ coincidence of the sound of the Russian word ‘god’ meaning ‘year’ and the Dutch word ‘god’ (or the English word ‘god’) meaning God. The tsar ordered people to congratulating each other on a new God. Even up to now we see in Western and European countries the holiday of Christmas celebrated on December 25.
The date of December 25 is not random either. In the time before Christ, one of the main celebrations was the winter solstice or ‘solntsevorot’ (Old Russian). On this day people honored the Sun God. The sunlight hours were getting longer and this became a symbol of new beginnings which fostered everywhere the concept of birth or the revival of the gods.
There is a celebration called ‘Kolyada’ among the Slavic nations which is a traditional holiday of pagan origin, originally related to the winter solstice and later on, related to Christmas. The mandatory feature of the holiday was people’s festivities using hides, horns and masks, singing kolyada songs, youth games, giving gifts to kolyada singers and fortune-telling. The celebration started as soon as the first star came out on the night from December 24 to 25 according to the Julian calendar.
In the year 45 B.C. Julius Caesar set the date of December 25 for Europe as the date of the winter solstice. But the accuracy of the Julian calendar was far from ideal. And by the 16th century the shift of the actual astronomical solstice reached the date of December 12. Pope Gregory XIII decided to correct the mistake and in 1582 he introduced a new Gregorian calendar for Catholic countries. But that was based on not the era of the Roman Emperor, but the Council of Nicaea of 325 (as the period of the establishment for the main Christian holidays), that is why the 3 days that appeared between the 1st and the 4th centuries of our era were not taken into account.
Now practically the whole world is following the Gregorian calendar. The day of the winter solstice is either on December 21 or December 22. The Roman Catholic church and the majority of Protestant churches celebrate Christmas on December 25 according to the Gregorian calendar. Russian, Jerusalem, Serbian, Georgian Orthodox churches and Athos, as well as Ancient Oriental and Eastern-Catholic churches celebrate Christmas on December 25 according to the Julian Calendar, which corresponds to January 7 in the modern Gregorian calendar.
This whole mix-up with calendars created an unusual holiday — Old New Year, which is celebrated from January 13 to 14 according to the Julian calendar. It is based on the Russian folk holiday ‘Vasilev vecher’ which was celebrated during the night from December 31 to January 1 (according to the Julian calendar). It is also known under the names of ‘Schedriy vecher’, ‘Shedrets’ or ‘Ovsen’. The celebration traditions are overall similar to those of Kolyada.
Well, now we are going to get back to Tsarist Russia. Despite the fact that the fir-tree New Year holiday was originally strange to the population, with time people accepted it. In 1852 in St. Petersburg at Ekateringoff train station a huge decorated fir tree was exhibited for observation for the first time. The new custom was enjoyed by peasants who all of a sudden found a way of making money in winter; it was enjoyed by the noble classes but left the working class indifferent to it, as they didn’t have extra money for New Year decorations and foresters were angered by unintelligent masses cutting of fir trees.
It was thought that having just come to power in 1917, the Bolsheviks brought New Year fir trees to counter-revolutionary church intrigues. This assumption destroys the fairy tale like New Year collection for children named ‘Elka’ published by Maxim Gorky and Alexander Benua in 1918.
On January 26, 1918 Vladimir Lenin signed the ‘Decree on the introduction in the Russian Republic of the Western European Calendar’ and the country switched for the Gregorian style. The dates that corresponded to the old calendar started being called ‘old style’ and the new calendar, ‘new style’.
The Orthodox church did not switch to the new style and is still using the Julian calendar.
The new law affected the creative mix-up in this era of fast revolutionary changes. The mix-up started happening with the New Year itself as well. Still, Lenin continued to respect the holiday like in the old times. History knows his legendary trip to children at a celebration in Sokolniki in 1919 when the leader was stopped by bandits, mugged, and the bandits then disappeared in Lenin’s own military Renault.
By 1922, speedy Komsomol members came up with ‘Komsomol Christmas’ or ‘Komsvyatki’. The day after Christmas was announced to be a day-off. During a Komsomol celebration young communism builders at first portrayed religious heresy during meetings and then would get dressed up in various Antanta and Kulak costumes setting up moralistic scenes overthrowing those regimes and later on, it would get to burning down icons. Three years after that, this devilry was criticized as not very effective and the targeted destruction of religious rites started. In 1929 the day-off due to Christmas was cancelled. And on that same day somehow a fir-tree also ended up on the list of banned objects. Red Army patrols would look watchfully into windows to see flashing fir-tree lights, and children were encouraged to learn poems like this opus of the poet A.I.Vvedensky:
Soviet religious fighters did not get into the details of religion and did not know that the Holy Synod of the Orthodox church up to 1917 kept insisting on issuing decrees that prohibited setting fir-trees in educational institutions considering the idea a strange pagan rite. Especially since fir twigs were used by Orthodox Christians (and are still used) in burial rituals.
The Bolshevik anathema of a New Year tree was approaching its sixth anniversary when all of a sudden in a conversation with Comrade Stalin, a candidate to the Politburo of the Central Committee of the All-Union Communist Party Pavel Petrovich Postyshev suggested returning the New Year tree to children. Iosif Vissarionovich agreed to the publication and on the next day, December 28 1935, the newspaper ‘Pravda’ wrote,
‘…Why are our schools, orphanages, daycares, children’s clubs and pioneer palaces deprived of this great pleasure for children of the workers of the Soviet country? It must be some ‘left’ out-doers who brought scandal upon this children’s amusement by labeling it a bourgeois idea. This is an incorrect condemnation of the New Year tree which is a great enjoyment for children and should be stopped…’
Mass media actively helped the revival of the tradition of setting up a New Year tree. The next day the rest of the current press took the initiative of the main newspaper of the country as approval; axes started grind and saws started shrieking. More than that, store counters, according to reports, were filled with a wide assortment of New Year tree decorations that arrived from who knows where. The new year of 1936 the country was met happily breathing in the pine smell of these green beauties. The holiday was presented as a day of celebrating a happy childhood in the Soviet country and from an ideological point of view was acquired scrupulosity.
Finally, on January 1, 1947, even before the cancellation of the card system, people got some short time off as New Year day became a state holiday, together with May 1 and Great October Day. The holiday started growing new ideological traditions. The place for the eight point Bethlehem star was taken up by a five-pointed red star; angels gave their spot to airships with hammers and sickles and the new generation could no longer correspond the New Year tree to ‘backward religious traditions’. Poets glorified the holiday that returned with understandable joy; in particular, S. Y. Marshak, who in 1948 made children happy with this four line poem:
It seems like fairness has prevailed — the people were given back their New Year holiday, but as it is well known, in every barrel of honey there is a spoon of tar. The active revival of the holiday didn’t impact its qualitative content in any way. The thing is, the majority of New Year performances were more likely similar to a theatrical political information performance of the history of the Soviet state rather than a children’s fairy tale. The tradition came from New Year celebrations in the House of Unions which were held in the 30s-40s, in which Stalin Prizes were awarded to winners including the laureates Lev Kassil and Sergey Mikhalkov. And though according to the uncomplicated historical line there were powers of kindness under the leadership of the Bolsheviks and powers of evil represented by Contra, this whole circus was filled with quotes from the party line, which looked like a well-worn record and was hard to understand by children. Under Nikita Khrushev, new characters were introduced; a Pioneer and a corn on the cob, but with stories on the topic of building communism, it still wasn’t successful.
Finally, in 1964, young professional scenario writers were invited to take part: Edouard Uspensky, Alexander Kurlyandskiy and the producer Arkady Khait. They returned classical New Year characters to children, Father Frost and Snegurochka, and the New Year performance turned into a kind fairy tale with a happy ending.
Over the most recent several hundreds of years, New Year celebrations and their interpretation have changed a lot of times over, but the concepts of renewal and revival have stayed the same forever. New Year is, first of all, a time to come to conclusions and to look deep into yourself. What great things did we have time to do over the past year? How did we become better, stronger and wiser? Who did we offend? How were we wrong?
But, luckily, this celebration is not limited by making conclusions. With the arrival of New Year we are starting to set up new beginnings. Everyone makes plans for the future year, imagines it to be in the very best and the most desirable state. This is a fairy tale time of dreams and hopes.
Not by accident is this holiday liked by both children and adults. That is because New Year can reasonably be considered the lightest and the kindest holiday that is celebrated by practically all the world’s nations.
Text: Andrey Sugakov-Romanov, Vladyslav Shcherbak. Photo: Archives, Igor Vinogradov, Nikolay Akimov and Leo Porter, a pictorial review TASS, A. Usmanov, Nikolai Malyshev and Valery Khristoforov, Sholomovich, Dmitry Debabov. Translation: Elizabet Hesket.
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