The following is a guest post by Peter Roudik, director of legal research at the Law Library of Congress. Peter has written a number of interesting posts related to Russia and the former Soviet Union for In Custodia Legis, including posts on the Soviet investigation of Nazi war crimes, lustration in Ukraine, Crimean history and the 2014 referendum, regulating the Winter Olympics in Russia, Soviet law and the assassination of JFK, and the treaty on the creation of the Soviet Union.
As a foreign law specialist who covers Russia, I am often asked why Russians celebrate Christmas after the start of the New Year. Also, what is the reason for celebrating the New Year twice, first on January 1 and then thirteen days later? And is it true that the whole country shuts down for almost two weeks during these seasonal celebrations?
To answer these questions, we need to remember that, in the past, the Russian New Year started in March under an ancient pagan calendar and then under the original local application of the Julian calendar. Then, in the 15th century, the beginning of the New Year was moved to September based on the liturgical calendar of the Orthodox Church. It was not until December 19, 1699, that Peter the Great issued a decree reforming the Russian calendar and ordering that the New Year be celebrated together with other Christian people on January 1. The same decree stated that large houses along major streets should be decorated with pine trees, spruces, or their branches.
However, despite Tsar Peter’s efforts, the actual New Year celebration did not start to coincide with the rest of the world. Instead, Russia continued to operate according to the Julian calendar, which is thirteen days behind the Gregorian calendar that was introduced in Western Europe by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582. According to the Julian calendar, Christmas was celebrated in Russia on January 7, and the New Year on January 13. Immediately after the 1917 revolution, the Bolsheviks changed the calendar, and on January 26, 1918, the government passed a decree “On the imposition of the West-European calendar in the Russian republic.” The decree was intended to “establish the time count as that used by almost all other cultured people.” According to the decree, the next day after January 31, 1918, would be February 14. For several months, both dates were shown in the official documents, and then on July 1, 1918, the country moved to the Gregorian calendar completely.
However, this change did not affect the Russian Orthodox Church, which continues to live according to the old Julian calendar. That is why the New Year is celebrated in Russia together with the rest of the world on January 1, then the Orthodox Christmas is celebrated on January 7, and after that the so-called “Old New Year” is January 14, when people pay respect to the old tradition and have another opportunity for celebration.
The tradition of celebrating Christmas and the New Year with decorated trees was widely popular. However, in 1916 when Russia was fighting Germany in World War I, this custom was declared unpatriotic, apparently because of its German roots, and the Orthodox Church officially prohibited the installation of Christmas trees during the holidays.
The antireligious regime that came to power did not overturn this ban and continued to erase Christmas and New Year celebrations from daily life. Then, in 1930, the Council of People’s Commissars, then the Soviet Government, totally eliminated all religious and secular holidays and weekends, and introduced a six-day working week. People simply did not work on the 6th, 12th, 18th, and 24th, and 30th day of each month. January 1 was a regular business day. People were strongly discouraged from observing religious holidays and traditions. On certain days that had been religious holidays in the past, activists were sent to people’s apartments to check that no celebrations were taking place.
This continued through 1935, when Soviet leader Joseph Stalin announced that “life has been improved significantly”; food rationing was cancelled, and more consumer goods appeared in the stores. Suddenly, on December 28, 1935, the main Soviet newspaper Pravda published on page 3, between a report on the growing merchant marine fleet and a telegram from American Armenians to the Soviet leaders, a short eight-sentence article titled Let’s Organize a New Year’s Party Under a Fir Tree for Our Children. The author, who was the second in command in Ukraine, then one of the Soviet constituent republics, wrote that before the revolution bourgeoisie and government officials always had nice New Year’s parties, and workers’ children were not invited to these celebrations. Why now, he asked, are our children denied the pleasure of enjoying winter festivities under a fragrant green fir tree? He called for all city and village administrators across the country to have New Year celebrations in kindergartens, schools, and children’s clubs. Soon after that, Christmas trees, which were now called New Year’s trees, were available for purchase, and Christmas decorations (named Fir tree decorations) appeared in stores. Guidelines on how to conduct a New Year’s party and sample plays were published and distributed to all schools.
Because this winter marks the 80th anniversary of the restoration of New Year’s celebrations in Russia, the Russian State Library prepared a special webpage filled with colorful illustrations dedicated to the history of this holiday. The RSL writes that everything started in Stalin’s car when one of the party leaders who was riding with Stalin complained that Moscow looked boring and the population would like to have Christmas decorations. Stalin liked this idea and encouraged his comrade to come out with the initiative formally.
Another legend about the revitalization of Christmas in the Soviet Union is described by Bill O’Reilly. According to him, Stalin’s daughter Svetlana attended a Christmas party at the British Embassy in Moscow and got excited about glass balls and candles on a tree. She begged her father to grant this joy to children in the Soviet Union, and that is how the holiday was returned to the people.
Even though winter celebrations became immediately popular, New Year’s Day did not become a formal holiday for many years. It was not until 1947 that the Soviet legislature declared that, as of 1948, January 1 would be a non-working public holiday. To recuperate the working time lost during the celebrations, the same decree eliminated another public holiday, the Victory in World War II Day (May 9), which became a working day instead.
Thus, the New Year became the most celebrated non-ideological holiday in the country. It became a tradition to celebrate the New Year with family and close friends, find gifts under the tree (where they are allegedly placed by Grandfather Frost, a Russian relative of Santa Claus), and have a festive dinner to say goodbye to the passing year and hello to the coming year. In 1992, January 2 was declared a non-working federal holiday also. Then, in 2005, the mandatory paid New Year’s holiday break was extended a further ten days, covering the Orthodox Christmas and going almost up to the Old New Year celebrations under the Julian calendar.
However, such a long stretch of family time is not always a positive thing. Too many dinners with relatives often results in domestic conflicts and violence, and up to 20% of all Russian divorces are filed on the first working day after the New Year’s break.
So, we wish you all a happy Old New Year!