Some century and a half ago Fyodor Tyutchev, one of the greatest poets of Russian Romanticism wrote a quatrain that with time became proverbial:
You cannot grasp Russia with your mind
Or judge her by any common measure,
Russia is one of a special kind –
You can only believe in her.
(translation via Russkiy mir)
Celebration of the New Year is one of those occasions when i become aware of this truth even more than usually – you can’t get Russia with your mind (or with with any other of your brain functions for that matter.)
Right, we know it all – that New Year madness has roots in various Pagan festivals, that during communism it was forbidden to celebrate Christmas and the symbolic of the two Holidays were switched and traded off… Still, none of it explains the contagious fanaticism with which majority of Russians ‘sees off the old year’ and greets the new. (In Russian language it’s literally ‘seeing off’ the old year and ‘meeting’ the new one, mind you.)
There are countless traditions to be observed before the Holiday and within its course – from paying off all your debts, via tiding your home generally to asking forgiveness from the people you hurt and what not.
Couple of weeks leading to December 31st we are having an extended “Black Friday” over here – the amount of shopping that’s done is intimidating and overwhelming, yet it can’t be avoided; see, it’s a must because you simply have to give gifts to as much people as possible and you have to buy tons of stuff for yourself as well… Among else, you have to stock up on food because it’s an 8 day long public holiday and the stores are closed at least until January the 3d. (In case you’ve skipped that, like i did, you’ll be living exclusively on chocolate and cookies which are gifted generously in the spirit of the season – you can’t get any other food in this time, unless you’ve provided for yourself in advance.)
Thus one of the NY traditions is to watch ad nauseum the movie Irony of Fate or Enjoy Your Bath, a romantic comedy from 1976 on which importance for Russian people even some serious books were written – see Olga Fedina’s book, What Every Russian Knows (And You Don’t)
“Foreigners who spend years mastering classical Russian grammar and getting used to the rapid-fire slangy exchanges of contemporary spoken Russian need one more thing: a personal cultural guide. We dream of someone who will take us by the hand and explain why a 30-year-old film is still watched by the whole family every New Year’s Eve, whisper the allusions to films in the jokes our co-workers are making, and help us understand how a traditional fairy tale shaped our friends’ characters and sense of morality” says the author and i couldn’t agree more with her.
In those three hours that movie lasts you get a glimpse into Russia’s drinking culture – and if you are from the West or from Balkans like i am, i bet you that you won’t get it (i know i don’t – out of first ninety minutes of the first sequel, some 25 min are devoted to provision and consumption of alcohol); you’ll get an insight into the notorious pressure to which Russian women are subjugated to marry and have family (almost 30 years later hardly anything changed there); besides, you’ll see what a Russian banya stands for and maybe you’ll understand why Russian people attend it with a religious devotion (i confess i don’t get that either.) Mind you, these are just first 30 minutes of the movie which can’t be re-told, but can be watched on youtube with English subtitles: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lVpmZnRIMKs
Another NY custom, which goes observed with religious-like fanaticism, is the traditional Russian zastolye – at least six courses and several hours long meal accompanied by unlimited quantities of alcohol and countless toasts to health and honor of the participants. Some of the ‘ritual foods’ are pickled herring, caviar, Olivier salad, mandarines and all of it seems to be deeply rooted in pre-Christian observances and connection to the departed ancestors; anyway it is, by now zastolye is an essential part of Russian way of living which, being a foreigner, you’ll never ever understand.
I pulled a card from my Véritable Tarot de Marseille and it was 3 of Wands/ Bâtons:
It’s a plain in imagery card – three wands are interlocking, leaves curling out from the intersection – yet it’s meaning, tied to the Empress and the Suit of Fire, is rich and promising; the card usually denotes the awaiting of goodness and abundance which somehow we happen to know is just about to arrive…
On that note, i am wishing you a Happy New Year, may it be as joyous, abundant and fulfilling, as Russian zastolye is 😉
- 7 Ways to Have a Happy Russian New Year (Photo Essay) (themoscowtimes.com)
- Revealing Russia II: Emancipation and the discovery of who Russians are (voiceofrussia.com)
- Can European socialism be good to Russia? (english.pravda.ru)
- Prejudices about Russia (stasyinmunich.wordpress.com)
- Eight myths about Russia (indrus.in)
- Festivities continue till the Old New Year arrives (indrus.in)