Holiday: It’s beginning to look at lot like New Year’s. . .

Posted: December 22, 2009 in Иркутск, Holidays & Tradition
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To properly describe my experience in the realm of the Russian “holiday season,” if such a concept actually exists as a period defined apart from the general conception of everyday life in this country, then I should go back to my Thanksgiving holiday here.

Walking out of a delightful evening of intercultural dialogue (conversation over wine with Russians) on the last Thursday of November, passing the central market, my cohorts and I noticed that within the past few hours, a gargantuan “Happy New Year’s” light-up sign with accompanying fir garlands had been hung on the face of the main shopping mall. That may have made my Thanksgiving more complete than the sweet potatoes and pumpkin pie had.

I don’t consider myself a total minion of the U.S. of Consumerism Culture that I left behind in order to spend the holidays abroad. But, I won’t lie, the probably coincidental Black Friday start of the Russian end-of-the-year shopping season with the Irkutsk central market’s sign-hanging and Christmas-tree construction really did touch my little heart, somewhere between my conviction that Christmas is the “Season for Giving” and my capacity to get an adrenaline rush when I see big red signs including the symbols “-” and “%.”

Thanks to the Soviet reconstruction of, well, everything, the importance of Christmas in Russia, especially as a religious holiday, has been overshadowed by the all-consuming, early winter extravaganza of a festival that New Year’s (Novii god) is; I say “early winter,” as opposed to the supposedly equally important late-winter extravaganza, pancake-eating fest of Maslenitsa (the Russian Fat Tuesday). Although the completely Russian aspects of life (vodka drinking, for instance) are interesting enough, I almost enjoy the Russian takes on what we see as “normal” or “American” more. Accordingly, observing the build-up to one of these derivations, namely, the holiday season, has made the concurrent finals season that much better.

What makes Novii God (pronounced NOHvee GOHD) Novii God?

1. Cold. Negative 20 deg. C. (about -5 deg. F.) is more or less comfortable at this point. Granted, clothes and (new!) sufficient footwear are a part of that “comfort.” It’s been down to -32 when I’ve walked out in the morning, but there have also been a few rare days where the daytime temps get up to -15 or even -10. I’ve found that an effective gauge of how much clothing to wear is how many kids are sliding down the ice slide on the hill outside my window. For the night before Christmas Eve (the Western one, the 24th), they’re forecasting -39, which almost ties the all-time record low for Irkutsk, -41, though the extended forecast shows New Year’s Eve day being a balmy -2.

2. “Winter” symbolism. Olga Vladimirovna showed us her collection of Soviet-era Christmas postcards during our last week of Lit class when we were looking at Christmas-themed poems and such. Much to closeted, Soviet-era believers’ delight, I’m sure, most of the symbols of Christian Christmas that don’t directly involve the manger scene, &c., were largely preserved under the rule of the atheistic state: the gift-giving Santa-Claus equivalent, Uncle Frost (Ded Moroz); the evergreens; the candles. If you add in Snegurochka (roughly “Little Snow Girl,” Uncle Frost’s daughter) who, according to Slavic pagan myth, brings the snow and cold along with her father until she dies in the springtime, you’ve got the pre-Soviet Russian Christmas (which happens 13 days after the Western one, on January 7, due to the country’s/Russian Orthodox Church’s switch to the Gregorian calendar under Peter the Great). To get the Soviet formula for the New Year holidays, i.e. New Year’s (Jan 1) and Old New Year’s (Jan 13–again, the calendar switch), just add in a cute little Komsomolok in a rocket ship delivering a greeting card from Sputnik or something. We’ll call it a cherubim.

Today, this all means that the Christmas trees, lights and Uncle Frost/Little Snow Girl likenesses all go up at the same time that they do in America, just with a tiny bit less clarity (or interest) in why they’re being put up. But, perhaps that’s one of the Russian holiday season’s merits: New Year’s is for family and friends and startings-over and champagne drinking and exchanging presents amidst a winter-based decoration scheme from a history of mixed origin, all of which is then followed by a, what I assume to be, quieter Christmas, with less of the “fluff” to distract from the religious reason for the day.

3. Shopping & presents. Still, the gift-exchange culture of the New Year, and the accompanying discount advertising, is decked with Christmas trees and red-and-green (plus blue. . . for winter. . .) color scheme. Occasionally a good ol’ American X-mas hymn like “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” or “Jingle Bell Rock” is thrown in there, or heard walking down Karl Marx St.

I’ve received packages from my grandma and mom, both of which really kind of made my life. . . . Stockings filled with Werther’s originals, my favorite flavor of instant oatmeal, and candy canes; a little Hallmark Christmas tree that plays “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas;” and all the brightly wrapped presents helped me spruce up my room in the spirit of the season, if not just get me all boyishly excited for the gift-opening day. Great stuff.

4. Costumes. If we have our Halloween to dress-up, New Year’s in Russia serves that purpose, too, though the costumes have a more Mardi Gras/masquerade feel, as opposed to the bloody gore of our All Souls Eve outfits.

5. Get-togethers. I hear about this talked about more on advertisements than I’ve actually experienced in the sprit , and the meetings that I have had have only been around the holidays somewhat randomly.

The first day Ryan got here was Vova’s 18th birthday, and he had invited us to dinner with his family. We went to a really nice Japanese restaurant on the first floor of one of the up-scale hotels of Irkutsk, and had a private room with our own server who kept the table literally filled with huge dishes for the 9 of us: Vova, his parents, his girlfriend Kristina and her parents, his godmother, and Ryan and I. We had little slippers, the table was halfway underground so it looked like we were sitting on the ground, the whole nine yards–real authentic. But it was good food, and we were stuffed by the end of the menu. His parents ended up buying the equivalent of 3/4 of a bottle of wine for each of us young’uns (they reserved the 3 bottles of vodka for the adults), all of which turned out to be good practice for me and my toast-making technique (a legitimate cultural-language-philosophizing-gastronomic skill. . . but seriously). All in all, a good and entertaining 6-7-hour-long meal that kept it’s energy (almost) until the end of the night with the 1 a.m. taxi ride home.

The end of the semester at the MezhFak for the American students, traditionally comes with a tea-drinking (chaepitiye–appetizers and goodies included) with the teachers, coordinators, and a representative or two of the administration. Ours was on Friday, the last day of class: each of the teachers said a nice little something about us and our work, the administration gave us a little gift (a traditional present for guests–a piece of Irkutsk earth, ours in the form of gemstone keychains), and we gave our teachers postcards from our home states and tea mugs filled with candy (although overdone in the U.S., an appreciated cultural thing for them). Conversation went on for almost two hours without too much awkwardness, except for when Irina Milentievna kept remarking on how less awkward it would be if we’d had vodka. Thanks.

Ryan and I might try to get together with Romany once more before Christmas, maybe to bake cookies or something or watch an American flick Ryan brought on his roommate’s external hard drive.

. . .
We haven’t decided on what our Christmas activities will be, apart from midnight mass at the beautiful old Catholic Church in the center and presents the next morning. The day after Christmas, I leave for my month of travel, which I’ve decided is going to look (generally) like this:

Dec 26-30: Trans-Siberian to Moscow with Ryan, who flies out Jan 1
Dec 30 – Jan 7: New Year’s and sightseeing in Moscow
Jan 7-9: Berlin
Jan 9-14: Nepperwitz (outside of Leipzig) with my Grandpa’s relatives
Jan 14-19/20: Prague with Ashley and Marek
Jan 20: Flight back to Moscow to catch a train back to Irkutsk.

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