Epic Celebrations: American Vs. Russian New Year

New Year is one of the most internationally recognized holidays, and one of the largest global celebrations of the year. On New Year’s Eve the whole world gets together to say goodbye to the old year and welcome the upcoming one. But while the themes are the same, in different parts of the world, the details of the celebrations look a little different. This time around, we’re looking at the food, customs, and even characters that make New Year’s celebrations in Russia and the United States timeless, yet unique to their regions.

Christmas Tree vs. New Year Tree

A lot of families in the U.S. start putting up their lights and decorating their Christmas trees in November, often right around the week of Thanksgiving. With all the work that goes into the cleaning and decorating, it’s no wonder a lot of people leave them up as long as possible. The US is divided on when is the right time to take down the tree: lots of people take it down within the day or two after Christmas. However, it is also common for people to take their tree down as part of their New Year’s Eve celebration so they go into the next year with a clean slate, and clean space.

Russians do things in reverse and celebrate New Year before Christmas. New Year’s Eve kicks off the winter holiday season in Russia, and the trees are usually going up right around the time most Americans take theirs down, somewhere between December 26th and December 30th. Since that’s the case, we really ought to call it a New Year’s tree!

According to the Russian Orthodox church, which measures time with the old Julian calendar for religious celebrations, Christmas is observed on January 7th. This is why Russians celebrate after the New Year. Just a week after Orthodox Christmas is Old New Year (January 14th). In Russia, this is the day to get rid of Christmas trees and consider the winter holidays over.

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The End of the Holiday Season vs. the Beginning

While American New Year is the last on the list of winter holidays, in Russia it’s actually the first one, followed by Orthodox Christmas (Jan. 7) and Old New Year (Jan. 14). Russians are lucky enough not to have to go straight to work the day after the biggest celebration of the year; they get about 10 more days to shake off their hangovers before they have to report back to the office. In the US, most offices re-open by January 3rd, which is far less time to party and sober up.

Christmas Gifts vs. New Year Gifts

Did you know that Russians have never heard of Christmas gifts? That’s right, because in Russia, New Year’s Day is the time for both kids and adults to open their holiday presents. This is the reason that we see so many Russians in stores frantically scooping up incredible post-Christmas deals. Thanks to this tradition, they avoid pre-holiday frenzy and save a pretty penny on holiday shopping.

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Santa Claus vs Ded Moroz and Snegurochka

In the United States, all the little children wait to see if they’ve ended up on Santa’s naughty or nice list, and hope that he will ride his magical sleigh, pulled by flying reindeer, to their homes to deliver piles of toys made by his happy elves from the North Pole. But it turns out that Santa Claus isn’t the only one who brings holiday gifts.

In Russia, it’s Grandfather Frost, or Ded Moroz, who goes from house to house with his young granddaughter Snegurochka (Snow maiden), and gives away presents on New Year’s Eve. All the kids look forward to their visit and prepare a whole performance complete with poetry readings, singing, and dancing to please Grandfather Frost and receive a gift from him. Parents usually ask neighbors or friends to dress up and visit their home or even hire professional actors to surprise the little ones much like people in the US do for Santa. Maybe things aren’t so different after all.

Party vs. Family Time  

While in the US, New Year is a big night for parties, in Russia it is quite the opposite. Russians do love to party, don’t get me wrong, but it’s only after spending time with family when they meet their friends for the second part of the celebration, which usually doesn’t happen until 1 or 2 in the morning of January 1st. People in Russia take their traditions seriously, and it’s a common rule to welcome the New Year at home with your nearest and dearest and only after that to go out with friends.

Regular Dinner vs Traditional Feast

When it comes to the feasting, both countries go all out, but the menus can be wildly different in each place. In the US, it’s difficult to pin down a traditional food for the entire country, since each region really takes pride in its local specialties. You can consider the New Year meal as Thanksgiving dinner part 2, which makes sense as most homes have leftover ingredients from their earlier feast.

Lots of families serve a ham at this time of year – since they’ve already done turkey, but the trimmings differ depending on where in the US you are. In New England, there’s lobster, buttery corn chowder, clam pots, and oyster stuffing. But way down South, no matter what else you make, it’s a tradition to cook up a pot of black-eyed peas for good luck on New Year. What’s with the black-eyed peas, you might ask? During the Civil War, Sherman and his troops burned their way through the South, taking tons of crops out in the process. Miraculously, they missed the fields of black-eyed peas, and more than one soul was still alive to eat them the following New Year.

If there is a universal New Year’s dish in the USA, it might be shrimp cocktail – especially served with ice on the edge of a martini glass – which makes anyone feel a little bit fancier, and of course, it must be accompanied by a good champagne! Caviar, cheese platters, and finger foods galore are also New Year’s Eve party favorites. Frankly, when it comes to food and celebration in the US, just about anything goes – in some places it’s becoming a tradition to make your own tradition!

Russians are quite different in this regard, as the New Year’s feast is almost a pageant of traditional favorites. Russians have more than a couple of festive dishes, instead, there is an entire New Year’s menu complete with typical foods just for this particular holiday! Ever heard of “Herring under a Fur Coat?” It’s a traditional Russian salad on top of the long list of traditional salads that are a must on New Year. For most Russians, it is truly NOT New Year if this salad is not on your table. There’s also Olivier, Salad with Crab and Corn, Mimose, and tons more mayo-loaded goodness both beautifully decorated and exceptionally tasty.

Besides salads, Russian New Year isn’t complete without caviar (usually eaten on bread with butter or hard-boiled egg), tangerines, and of course champagne! The most popular local variety is called Sovietskoye.  While it was in shorter supply during the Soviet period, it became an essential part of the New Year’s celebration. Now even if people can afford Dom Perignon, they still probably have a bottle of affordable Sovietskoye on the table as a tribute to the old tradition.

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Ball Drop vs. President’s Speech

Each country even has its own traditional activities for the stroke of midnight, and you’ll be surprised at how they’re similar. In the US, while some people are lucky enough to find themselves on Time Square (New York City’s neon epicenter), most are glued to their TVs. No matter where they are, they’re watching the famous dropping of the crystal LED ball from the former New York Times Building. It’s easily the biggest party in the country, with millions attending and more watching on television from all over the world. This tradition has been alive for 100 years so it is safe to say it has been a huge success that just keeps getting bigger. The ball takes one minute to drop, and people everywhere come together to countdown with the final ten seconds.

Russians also welcome New Year while glued to their TVs, but instead of watching the ball drop, they listen to a speech from their President wishing everybody a Happy New Year. Right before midnight, the clock tower on Moscow’s Red Square starts counting down the last ten seconds of the year. When the bell rings at midnight, people make a wish, drink champagne, and kiss each other.

Despite the differences, there’s one thing Russians and Americans do agree on (other than champagne) when it comes to New Year. It isn’t New Year’s if you don’t see the night sky blown up in fireworks, and maybe even the rest of the world agrees on that. People from both countries enjoy setting off their own fireworks, though shows at home are usually on a much smaller scale. It’s a good chance to put on a great show for everyone in the family – and even the neighborhood – especially the little ones who just can’t make it up until midnight (with plenty of supervision around the fireworks, of course).  No matter where you are in Russia or the US, you’ll be impressed with an intense, bright and loud firework display that will start outside your window right after midnight.

Do you want to know more about Russian culture and traditions? Stay tuned and feel free to leave your comments or questions below. Happy New Year!

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