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Sunday, January 12, 2014

What makes Russian winter holidays unique?

  1. Old New Year, or Russian Oxymoron
Do you know what oxymoron is? It is a “figure of speech that juxtaposes apparently contradictory elements” (Wikipedia). The examples are: awfully funny, dark light, mad wisdom. We are used to seeing oxymoron, or paradox, in literature. But there’s one oxymoron that plays an important part in the life of any Russian, and it’s the Old New Year.
What is it? The second people from other countries hear the name they get really surprised, and perplexed, because they can’t understand how a new year can be old at the same time.
Though the word combination sounds like an incomprehensible paradox, the phenomenon of the Old New Year plays an important part in the life of any Russian person. It’s a special day of the calendar, namely January 14th. For a big part of Russian population this day is so important that they don’t take down New Year tree until January 15th, the day after Old New Year.
You will easily grasp the meaning of the holiday if you know something about calendars and history. In the pagan times, the New Year in ancient Rus was celebrated on the 22nd of March. However, after the adoption of Christianity, the date of New Year was changed to the 1st of September in accordance with the Byzantian calendar. But it’s not very easy to change customs and traditions of the whole country, so it took several centuries until Russians started to celebrate New Year on 1st of September. Before that time, some people still observed March 22 and others preferred September 1.
The New Year was celebrated on the 1st of September until 1699 when Peter the Great declared that from then on January 1st would be the New Year’s day. Peter wanted Russia to be more like Europe, so changing the date of the New Year was only one of the numerous things he did in order to achieve his goal.  
Seems logical, doesn’t it? But where does 14th of January fit in? The thing is that at that time Russia was using a different calendar from the one that Europe was using. European countries adopted Gregorian calendar in 1582, but Russians didn’t. It was still using the old, Julian calendar, and the difference between two calendars was approximately 14 days. So the 1st of January according to the Julian calendar was the 14th of January according to the new, Gregorian calendar. Since the Orthodox Church was (and still is) using Julian calendar, the order of the holidays was very logical: first the Advent fast that ended at Christmas (25th of December according to Julian calendar) and then New Year on the 1st of January.
Russia finally adopted Gregorian calendar only in 1918, after the Revolution, and that’s when this logical order got all mixed up. The Orthodox church still uses the old, Julian calendar, so now New Year happens in the middle of the Advent fast. So religious families cook only vegetable meals or fish and cook meet only starting with January 7th when Christmas is celebrated. And the 14th of January now is the New Year according to the old calendar. And Russians always remember it. It’s not a day off, but the TV channels show the same programs they showed previously during the New Year’s night and the atmosphere is still very festive. There’s no specific way to celebrate. Some people don’t celebrate it at all; others just watch their favorite shows and do whatever they like. Russians do love all sorts of holidays, so they would never give up a chance to miss another celebration. It’s our way to prolong the holidays, especially during our gloomy and cold winters.
By the way, Russia is not the only country where the Old New Year is celebrated, or at least recognized. Some Orthodox countries and practically all former Soviet republics recognize this day, including Armenia, Belarus, Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova, and Kazakhstan.
  1. Chinese New Year in Russia
If you ever visit Russia before the New Year you will see figures of a specific animal everywhere. It may be a horse, a rabbit/a cat, a dragon, a snake, a mouse/a rat, a rooster, a bull, a tiger, a sheep, a monkey, a dog or a pig. It is the animal that symbolizes the coming new year according to the Chinese astrological calendar. During the past decades it has become a tradition to associate each year with a specific animal from the Chinese zodiac. Technically, the Chinese new year happens about a month later, but that’s not a problem for Russians. There are figurines and various New Year ornaments with the animal of the year sold everywhere, and you can see those symbols practically everywhere.
Moreover, many people believe that each animal gives its own unique traits to the year and brings luck to those who honor them. For example, 2014 is the year of a blue wooden horse, so people who wore blue, green and yellow will be lucky in the new year. Also, caviar and fish were supposed to be on the tables by all means during the New Year’s night feast. I guess the religious Russians will be most lucky this year, because they won’t put meat on the table anyway during the Advent fast 
Some people who investigated this phenomenon of mixing different New Year traditions in Russia say that it all started when Peter the Great changed the New Year date from September to January to make Russia more like Europe. Before that time, the New Year in Russia was closely connected with agricultural cycle. The new date broke that connection. But the Chinese New Year is celebrated before spring comes, thus honoring new life and new beginning. So the Russian soul, which is forever torn between Europe and Asia, longs for that connection with nature and that’s why celebrating New Year according to the Chinese calendar became so popular in the country.
According to the Moscow Times, “Since 2014 is meant to be a tempestuous year, prepare for a thrill ride ahead, some Russian holiday website warn. Many astrologers and party-goers insist that they have from the horse's mouth that there may be changes and challenges to come”. Many people in Russia believe these predictions, but others are pretty skeptical about them.
Do you believe them? Or is it just a superstition? Share your thoughts in comments!

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