DECEMBER 2002

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The Russian New Year


By Katya Kumkova-Wolpert

At the end of December, three weeks after she is done celebrating Hanukkah, Marina Sinitsina will do what she has done every December for as long as she can remember. She will go to one of the many markets that have sprung up throughout the city and buy a fragrant and festive green… New Year’s tree.

Sinitsina came to the US from Kiev, Ukraine, in 1993. When New Year's Eve finally arrives, hundreds of thousands of New York’s immigrants from the former Soviet Union will participate in a ritual, with a tree and decorations, dinner, and champagne at midnight. To the outside observer it may look a lot like a belated, but secular, Christmas.

"You get together, you exchange presents," Faina Desyatnikova, who is Jewish, explained. She insisted, however, that the celebration is not Christian. "It is not a religious holiday. Hanukkah, Rosh Hashana [the Jewish New Year, which is celebrated in the fall] — that’s a different thing. That is something that belongs to us Jews. But this is for everyone."

"It's simple," said Aleksey Kurchuk, who came from Moscow in 1994. "No politics, no religion involved - it's a holiday for everybody." For Kurchuk, who is Russian Orthodox, New Year is a precursor to Christmas, which according to the calendar of his faith falls on January 7.

Historically, though, New Year’s has not always been so simple – or so pleasant. The tradition dates back to the 1917 communist ban on religion. The prohibition was an effort by the Soviet government to root out religious belief and practice, which it considered "the opiate of the masses." The secular Soviet holiday of New Year's replaced both Christmas and Hanukkah.

"As a teacher and a mother of two, I was told, with regard to children who did not come to school because of Passover or other [Jewish] holidays: if you don’t find them, you will be fired," Desyatnikova recalled. "And I had to go to churches, too, to find children. Because you were not allowed to [practice]." .

Although many immigrants from the former Soviet Union--both Jewish and Christian--have reconnected with their religious and cultural heritage, old habits are hard to break. "My parents are 90 and 85… If for 60 years we put up fir trees for New Year’s, even after 10 years here we still do," Anna Kleyner said.

This is as true for Jews as it is for Christians and those who have no religious affiliation, and the holiday provides a bridge for all immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Regardless of native language, ethnicity or religious belief, most speak Russian and share a common heritage of Soviet traditions.

"In my family we have Russians, Jews, a little bit of everyone," Desyatnikova said, adding that the importance of New Year’s is to gather her family.

Among other Soviet holidays that many immigrants continue to celebrate are Victory Day, the anniversary of the Allied Forces’ triumph over Germany in 1945, and International Women’s Day, held on May 8.

"Victory Day and New Year’s for us were always the biggest holidays," said Lydia Shpilsky.

Kleyner does not regret that her grandchildren, who were born in the US and attend Jewish school no longer understand the irreligious New Year’s tradition. But she will continue to celebrate it.

"The more holidays there are, the more pleasant it is to live in this world," she said. "There is no disharmony between them."

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