How to Celebrate New Year's like a Russian

New Year’s is celebrated all around the world, but nowhere is it celebrated in the same grandiose fashion as in Russia.

In fact, I'm not aware of any holiday that induces the same carnivalesque frenzy as the Russian New Year – which is a combination of Christmas, New Year’s and Winter Solstice traditions fused together with maudlin nostalgia for the Soviet Union.

It's truly an experience, and probably the best time to visit Russia, if it's in your travel plans. But in case you're still saving up for those transatlantic plane tickets, here's a sneak peek of Russia's most beloved holiday.

How to Say "Happy New Year!" in Russian

“S novym godom!” or

“S prazdnikom!” (“Happy Holiday!”) or

“S nastupayushchim!” (“Happy upcoming year!”)

Reply: “I vas takzhe!” (And you too!)

New Year's History in Russia

This holiday dates back to the third millennium BC and was known to the people of ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, Rome, Persia and China.

In Russia New Year's was traditionally associated with spring and renewal, so until the 15th century it was celebrated on March 1, then the date moved to September 1, and finally, to January 1, when czar Peter the Great decided to drastically westernize Russia. At that point it wasn't a major celebration it is today.

During the communist era (1917-1990s) all religious holidays were banned, so Christmas was no more, and even New Year's fell by the wayside. But the communists soon realized that while you can stomp out religion by destroying temples and sacred texts, you can't just as easily take away people's favorite holidays and traditions. So the compromise was to resurrect New Year's as a secular holiday that would perpetuate old Christmas traditions without the religious mumbo-jumbo.

Today New Year's has the status of the holiday supreme celebrated for at least 2 weeks (December 31-January 14). Every major city has New Year festivals, concerts, fairs and other celebratory events. The streets are transformed with trees, lights and decorations. And every year at 23:55 pm the President addresses the nation.

Russian New Year's Traditions and Beliefs

Comical depiction of the Russian New Year party.
Comical depiction of the Russian New Year party. | Source

Every Russian knows this New Year's axiom:

The way you meet the new year is the way you will spend it ("Как Новый год встретишь, так его и проведешь.").

As a result, many Russian New Year's traditions are derived from that belief. For example:

  • new year's day has to be joyous and festive, free from worries and arguments. Forgive those who've wronged you, repay your debts, clean the house. This way you will start the new year with a clean slate.
  • In addition to cleansing the soul and the house, it's customary to purify the body. For that reason on December 31 many Russians go to banya (Russian sauna), or at least take a hot bath.
  • The New Year's holiday feast is not just for indulgence's sake. It's believed that an abundant table with the best variety of dishes and refreshments symbolizes prosperity and well-being in the coming year. If the food is scarce and ordinary, the year will be "famished."
  • It's also a bad omen to sleep through the New Year's - then the year will be "sleepy" and uneventful.
  • To properly meet the new year, you have to say goodbye to the old year. So before midnight, usually around 10 pm, everyone gathers at the table to discuss the year that's ending, to revisit its best moments, and to wish each other good luck and new achievements in the coming year.
  • It's also believed that to honor the new year, it's best to wear new clothes, or at least new underwear. That's why underwear, socks, t-shirts etc. are popular New Year's presents.
  • When the clock starts striking midnight at the Kremlin's Spasskaya Tower, it's time to toast with champagne and make wishes. To make sure that the wish comes true, you need to write it down on a scrap of paper, burn it, throw the ashes into the champagne glass and drink it - all before the clock strikes 12!

Precisely at midnight people toast with champagne and make wishes for the upcoming year.
Precisely at midnight people toast with champagne and make wishes for the upcoming year. | Source
Ded Moroz and Snegurochka playing with the snow.
Ded Moroz and Snegurochka playing with the snow. | Source

Ded Moroz: Russian Spin on Santa Claus

Ded Moroz (Grandpa Frost) is another version of the legendary Saint Nicholas a.k.a. Santa Claus, Father Christmas, Pere Noel, Kris Kringle, Joulupukki etc.

But unlike Santa, Ded Moroz doesn't ride reindeers or slide down the chimney or live with Mrs. Claus and the elfs at the North Pole.

Ded Moroz's marital status is unclear but he does have a granddaughter - Snegurochka (Snow Maiden), and since 1998 he lives in the town of Veliky Ustyug, Vologda Oblast. On New Year's people love to dress up as Ded Moroz and Snegurochka and walk the streets, spreading the cheer, good wishes and (sometimes) vodka shots.

To surprise and delight the kids, Russians actually invite people dressed as Ded Moroz and Snegurochka into their homes. The deal is: you get a present for reciting a poem, a song or a dance.

The New Year's tree (yolka) at the Red Square in Moscow, Russia.
The New Year's tree (yolka) at the Red Square in Moscow, Russia. | Source

Traditional New Year's Dishes

Russian New Year's Eve feast is unthinkable without traditional holiday salads "Olivier" and "Shuba".

"Olivier" resembles potato salad but with more ingredients, such as:

Olivier
Olivier
Shuba is a Russian herring salad.
Shuba is a Russian herring salad. | Source
A plate of pickled vegetables is a must for any holiday table.
A plate of pickled vegetables is a must for any holiday table.
  • carrots
  • eggs
  • pickles
  • sweet peas
  • ham sausage or chicken etc.

It's basically tradition, holidays, happiness and your childhood boiled, chopped and served with mayo (for a full recipe click HERE).

"Shuba" (seledka pod shuboĭ in Russian) is a herring salad with lots of shredded veggies smeared with mayo and arranged like a layered cake. It's a nuanced dish, not for everyone, but incredibly filling and festive (you can find a full recipe HERE). Hands down, it's my favorite dish in the world.

Besides these two salads, on New Year's eve Russians eat

  • pickled vegetables (cabbage, cucumbers, tomatoes)
  • meat and potatoes (baked in the oven or fried)
  • petite sandwiches with butter and red caviar
  • pelmeni (meat dumplings)
  • Vinaigrette (beet salad)
  • kholodets (jellied meat)

and wash it down with copious amounts of champagne and vodka (tip: bad idea to mix the two).

But wait - there's more. Chocolate candies, torte Napoleon and sweet succulent mandarins are the culmination of the New Year's feast.

New Year's Eve Feast, Russian Style. Olivier is on the left.
New Year's Eve Feast, Russian Style. Olivier is on the left. | Source

New Year's Eve Poll

How do you like to celebrate the New Year's eve?

See results without voting

Films and Gala-Concerts

In a famous Russian cartoon "Zima v Prostokvashino" ("Winter Vacation in Prostokvashino") postman Pechkin asks: "What is the main adornment of the holiday table?" and then answers his own question: "Television."

Along with holiday salads, decorating the tree (yolka) and drinking the champagne while the bells chime in the new year, watching special holiday programs on TV is an indispensable part of the New Year's celebration.

And I'm not just talking about gala-concerts with favorite pop stars enthusiastically lip-syncing their latest hits, or comedy shows, or yet another rendition of "The Nutcracker". I mean beloved Soviet films, and one film in particular - "The Irony of Fate".

 The Irony of Fate or Enjoy Your Bath! (1976)
The Irony of Fate or Enjoy Your Bath! (1976)

In the country where God was persona non grata, people believed in the magic of the New Year's eve, and this movie captures that magic in the most implausible but sweet and hopelessly romantic way.

Every Russian knows the story: nerdy doctor Zhenya from Moscow mistakenly enters a strange woman's apartment after (again, mistakenly) being put on a plane to Leningrad.

His key fits the lock, the building and the furniture look the same, and since Zhenya is heavily inebriated after going to banya with his buddies, he doesn't notice the small idiosyncrasies that would have told him that it's not his apartment. He also doesn't remember being on a plane, or at the airport.

The owner of the apartment, beautiful Nadya, soon comes home to find a complete stranger asleep on her couch. Will she call the cops? Or will the New Year's eve work its magic on two Soviet citizens with identical apartments? Watch it HERE to find out (with English subtitles).

Collection of New Year's Songs from Famous Russian Cartoons

As you can see, New Year's celebration in Russia is a unique event that encompasses more than just the marking of the new calendar year. Some traditions were transplanted from Christmas, others are specific to Russia only. But no matter where you are, remember: the way you meet the new year is the way you will spend it. So Happy New Year!

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16 comments

Mel Carriere profile image

Mel Carriere 11 months ago from San Diego California

The Ruskies definitely know how to party. The food does not sound to the liking of my meat and potatoes tastes, but I like the tradition of burning a wish and putting it into your champagne glass to drink. If I make several wishes and drink them all, will they all come true? Nothing like having a drunken WASP wobbling around at your Russian party.

The Russian tradition of cleaning the house and doing the laundry and so forth is similar to what the Mexicans believe about the new year. My wife washes all the clothes in the house frantically before New Years, thinking that having dirty clothes on that day will mean she will be overburdened with laundry all year. Then again, getting all your clothes clean before New Years doesn't guarantee you won't have to do laundry all year. That would get rather smelly. Wonderful hub. Happy New Year!


Larry Rankin profile image

Larry Rankin 11 months ago from Oklahoma

Sounds like a wonderful festivity.

Great hub!


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 11 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

The New Year's celebration that you've described sounds wonderful! What a fun event. Thanks for sharing a great hub.


kalinin1158 profile image

kalinin1158 11 months ago from California Author

Thank you Mel! The herring salad might be a bit frightening, but I think you would like Olivier. So good!!!

Yeah, I think cleaning the house before New Years is more or less universal, and ALL drunks are welcome at Russian parties :-)


kalinin1158 profile image

kalinin1158 11 months ago from California Author

Thank you Larry! Happy new year!


kalinin1158 profile image

kalinin1158 11 months ago from California Author

Thank you Alicia! Russian New Year is really something to experience. Thanks for stopping by!


MizBejabbers profile image

MizBejabbers 11 months ago

The most phenomenal Holidays I ever spent were in Leningrad and Moscow (New Year's 1990), so I know every word you say is true. The food was fantastic, especially the little cakes. I don't care for caviar, but there was plenty for everybody's indulgence. My only food shock was biting into a piece of fish in what we call coleslaw. I had enough drinks under my belt to dance with Father Winter. I think that's what my guide called him then. The trees and decorations were beautiful, the men were handsome, and the women were beautiful, and everybody was so much fun (it didn't matter where they were from).

What surprised me: I took a real chance by mixing up my drinks. I'm not a drinker because alcohol gives me migraine headaches, but after vodka, brandy, and a few others I can't remember, my head was clear as a bell the next morning. No headache, so I think it is the additives that we in the USA put into our alcohol.

I think my favorite food was the borsch I got at the hotel restaurant in Moscow. I wish I could get a good recipe for that soup. Let me assure Mel that pickled herring is delicious!

I've always looked forward to going back and revisiting your fascinating country, but if I ever do again, it will be during the summer. Although I have to admit, we had minus temperatures here in the Southern U.S. before I went, and it only got to -3 in Moscow while I was there.


kalinin1158 profile image

kalinin1158 11 months ago from California Author

Wow, sounds like you've had a great time! Since my relocation to the US 15 years ago I've only spent one New Years in Russia, and I always miss it!

Every December I become inconsolably nostalgic. Part of it is missing the winter, especially the snow, another part is missing "the good old times" when things were simpler and I was much younger and carefree, and then there's missing the "atmosphere" of the holiday that was so infectitious and seemed to consume the entire country.

And it wasn't the consumerist frenzy that is Christmas in this country, it was more a celebration of hope and love and magic...I always go back to that film "The irony of fate" because it expresses so perfectly what Russian New Years is all about. It's just the best time!

And I never thought about it but you might be right about the alcohol. Most of the times when I get alcohol headaches it's the quality of the drinks, and the sugar content. So if I drink, I prefer pure alcohol, not cocktails with a bunch of sugary additives.

Summer is also a good time to visit Russia! You can certainly enjoy the outside more :-) when I visited in the winter, I spent most of my time indoors for obvious reasons. It was so freaking cold! But it's getting warmer. My brother said it barely even snowed in Moscow this year.


bdegiulio profile image

bdegiulio 11 months ago from Massachusetts

Very interesting. Sounds like fun. Thanks for sharing the Russian New Year with us.


kalinin1158 profile image

kalinin1158 11 months ago from California Author

Thank you Bill! Russian New Year's is one of those things you have to experience at least once in a lifetime :-)


aesta1 profile image

aesta1 11 months ago from Ontario, Canada

How interesting. In Cambodia, New Year is in the end of March or the beginning of April which you used to do in Russia. I never knew how huge the celebration is in Russia.


kalinin1158 profile image

kalinin1158 11 months ago from California Author

It's enormously huge :) And I'm glad it's in December not March - the weather is half the appeal!


M Lynn Moore profile image

M Lynn Moore 11 months ago from Madison, WI

Oh my! This will change my approach to welcoming the New Year for years to come, starting tomorrow. I have a hunch I am going to learn a lot from you.


kalinin1158 profile image

kalinin1158 11 months ago from California Author

This is music to my ears. And I think I'll learn a lot from you too, Michelle :-)


lovebuglena profile image

lovebuglena 11 months ago from Staten Island, NY

Very interesting hub. No one celebrates New Year's quite like "Russians" do.


kalinin1158 profile image

kalinin1158 11 months ago from California Author

Thank you! Why the quotation marks lol? I guess I should have said Russian speakers. Or former Soviet citizens? I love New Years. I still celebrate it with Olivier, Shuba, and watching of "the irony of fate", even though I've lived in the US for 15 years now.

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