February 8, 2000
by Julia Urakcheeva
Like every country, Russia has its traditions of celebrating the New Year. Of course, Millennium is beyond all traditions, and many of us would like to celebrate this night like never before: to move to another country or to the North Pole or to sit alone listening to the new century to come... But still it's more likely that the majority of the Russians kept to the usual way of spending the holiday. That usual way implies a company of friends or a family including every aunt and uncle. In any case, a party is usually large - 10 to 15 people. They may exchange gifts or they may not. Kids usually find their presents under the New Year tree. The whole night is spent around the table. Maybe the only person who doesn't relax this night and the whole day before is the housewife or the mistress of the house, who regards the event more like a duty than a party. She cooks and spreads the table.
The Russian table MUST be lavish, whether the family can afford it or not. In most cases the financial state of the family doesn't leave them a chance to be generous - but still they are. To get along with only coffee and cakes and champagne at midnight? Nobody would understand. To eat dinner at home and then come to see your friends not being hungry? Sounds strange for us. What shall we do all night long then? The dishes on the lavish table usually include: snacks (slices of sausage, cheese, and meat), spicy, vegetables, salads, and caviar. Then comes the main dish: a plate of meat and a plate of pommes frittes. Usually there are two kinds of meat, such as ham or chicken and chops. Champagne is traditional holiday drink. In most cases vodka is also on the table. If the ladies don't drink it, then wine or cognac is served for them. Something like Cola and mineral water is necessary too.
Everybody helps himself for anything he likes. Then usually is a break filled with dancing, laughing, smoking, watching holiday TV program, sometimes -- getting more closely acquainted with the people you've met for the first time. About 23.50 on Channel 1 the President delivers a speech, and many people watch it however contradictory their attitude to the President is. This year holiday time coincided with great changes in political life of the country. And at ten minutes to midnight we saw Vladimir Putin on our TV screens. He was serious and didn't smile. The holiday speech of the new head of Russia resembled a declaration of intentions more than congratulations.
After the speech the three main channels give a picture of the Kremlin tower where the clock strikes twelve - there is a silence in the company -- and with the 12th strike everybody shouts "Hooray!" They greet each other and fill their glasses with champagne. Then the TV is left alone, and the party goes on with music, dances, jokes, and making photos. As for young people, their party culminates outside with fireworks. Blue, green, red flashes illuminate the sky, and the sound resembles thunder. Then the tea or coffee is served, with cakes, sweets and cookies. The party goes on till the early morning.
There is one peculiar Russian holiday. In 1917 the calendar was changed to conform to the astronomic time, so the holiday curriculum also changed. What was the 1st of January in 1917 became the 14th of January. It is celebrated (unofficially) and bears the name of the Old New Year. There is a tradition of cooking vareniki (boiled pieces of paste enclosing curd) filling them with different things like a pinch of salt or pepper, sugar, or vanilla. Some put small coins inside, or even little scrapes of paper with "forecasts." Then the family eats vareniki and everybody sees what his forecast is. If there is a coin inside, it means you're going to be rich and prosperous in the coming year. Salt indicates tears, pepper is the sign of some bitter feelings, and sugar promises sweet life. This is a widespread tradition.
The New Year can be called our favorite holiday. Ask any child, what holiday he loves best. The answer will be - birthday and the New Year. The last is even more delightful because the whole country enjoys it with you.
Julia is a college student in Mobile’s sister-city, Rostov-on-Don. She will be contributing essays about life in Russia.