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 Years tree.
Sinitsina came to the US from Kiev, Ukraine, in 1993. When New
Year's Eve finally arrives, hundreds of thousands of New Yorks
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,
"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]
thats 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 Years 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 dont 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
If for 60 years we put up fir trees for New Years,
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 Years
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 Womens Day, held on
"Victory Day and New Years 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 Years 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
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