Today, 31 December, ushers in the most important holiday of the year: the New Year celebration! For those interested, Easter is the second most celebrated holiday.
Generalization warning: The Eastern world is very large, and so naturally some practices will vary from region to region and even from family to family. But, in general this is a fairly representative look at how the holiday is celebrated.
Today shoppers are making last minute gift purchases, heading to the supermarket for special foods, and cleaning the home before guests begin to arrive.
The family New Year Tree, if not already up, is being decorated. There will be no presents under the tree because that is the job of Grandfather Frost and the Snow Maiden. Magically, when children awake in the morning they will see that Grandfather Frost came in the middle of the night to deliver presents.
All this is somewhat close to Western traditions, except gifts are given on New Years Day instead of Christmas Day which is still to come on the 7th of January.
Now, what is somewhat different?
Tonight, for example. About 5 or 6pm homes will start to fill. Those small apartments will host family members and friends from out of town. Most Russians and Ukrainians prefer a home celebration as opposed to “going out” as is popular in the West. Still, restaurants will be booked and hotel ballrooms filled.
There will be a special meal, and that meal will go on for eternity as new dishes replace the old. If your stomach can hold it, one could eat from 8 or 9 pm right up into the early morning hours. Tea will flow like water. Some families will have brought out an old family samovar from a closet and will serve hot water for tea for this special night. Champagne toasts will be held until the clock strikes the near year at midnight, but vodka toasts will give the hot tea some stiff competition.
Lets talk about the samovar for a moment. It is not a “tea urn” or “coffee urn” or any other similar name. It is a hot water generator on steroids. It does only water, but it does it very, very well. Really old samovars were wood, coal, or charcoal fired, but it is unlikely that you would see one used indoors on a winter holiday. Most used inside the home will be electric, and some of those are quite old, too.
The hostess of the home will brew tea in a teapot, usually one of her nicest for this occasion, and for special holidays she will most likely use the finest tea leaves. As in loose tea leaves, so do not fret if you find some in your cup. That is a good thing–an indication that she used her very best on this holiday.
When it comes time to serve you tea, she will first pour about a third of a cup of her loose tea brew into your serving cup. That will be some pretty strong tea, so then she will fill the bulk of your cup with steaming hot water from the samovar, diluting the mixture into a very pleasant cup of her finest tea. She will not make tea inside the samovar itself.
Some teapots have inserts that hold the loose leaves, and sure, tea bags are common all over the FSU, but many families revert to this time honoured tradition for special holidays.
Culinary delights will highlight salads and the Russian style of open-faced “sandwiches” which to most Westerners are too small to be considered a sandwich. Bread with butter and caviar, crackers with cheese and caviar, bread with thin cucumber slices and meats will be found, among a host of other delights, naturally.
Expect to see a lot of salmon, blini, caviar, and various salads on most New Year tables. And borsch–we have already made our family borsch and it is ready to be served tonight!
Near midnight we will watch the president’s New Year greeting which will be on all the TV and radio channels. We will also join millions of other to watch the movie referenced earlier in this thread: “The Irony of Fate or Enjoy Your Bath!”
Here are links to both part one and part two for those interested.
Be a good host as your guest will not be going home–they’re staying overnight at your place so make sure to find room for bodies on every sofa, and if needed, a corner or two on the floor (for you, adult guests should never be asked to sleep on the floor).
Finally, the fire works!
It has been said that Napoleon and Hitler never really understood Russian culture, as the love for fireworks, both professionally in city plazas and informally on almost every residential street by neighbors, would have been the perfect cover. There is so much noise, so many sounds of explosions at midnight, so many bursts of light in the sky that Hitler could have marched in likely unnoticed on New Year’s Eve, not that we would encourage such a thing ever happening again. Needless to say, city fire departments will be busy all night.
On the New Year morning, there is a tradition to walk along the town plazas and squares. In Moscow you will see thousands of folk who venture out to Red Square and other famous parks and plazas. This is the one time of the year when it is polite to greet strangers with a smile.
Most everyone you meet will say С новым годом!