In the United States, celebrating Christmas and Hanukkah is so highly connected to material goods like Christmas trees, ornaments, cards, menorahs, dradles, decorations, specific food items and gifts, that it is difficult to imagine these holidays without these objects. In the Soviet Union however, items intended for the celebration of Christmas and Hanukah were rare (if they existed at all) and the holiday that was most openly celebrated and involved the consumption of the greatest number of goods was the secular, state-approved holiday Novy God (Russian for “New Year”). While the purchasing and public display of goods relating to Christmas and Hanukah was largely verboten, open exchange of Novy God cards, exhibiting a Novy God fir tree and feasting for the New Year was encouraged by the state and warmly embraced by much of the population.
Novy God Card in The Wende collection depicting “Grandfather Frost” and a Novy God fir tree
When Hanukah and Christmas were celebrated in the Soviet Union they were observed surreptitiously, because religion was highly discouraged by the state. During more lenient phases and for certain faiths that the state found less objectionable, religious practice was permitted in private spaces and areas like churches specifically designated for religious observance. However, during other eras and/or in regard to religions the state viewed less tolerably (for example, Judaism, Jehovah’s Witness, and Ukrainian Orthodox), persecution of worshippers could be extreme–resulting in exile, death and imprisonment for the openly observant. As a consequence, celebrations of Christmas and Hanukah in the Soviet Union were much less conspicuous than celebrations in the West—if celebrations occurred at all.
The celebration of Hanukkah in the Soviet Union was often so different from the celebration in America that Jews growing up in the Soviet Union who moved to the United States were often completely unfamiliar with the rituals and traditions of American Jews. According to an article from Philadelphia Weekly, while many American Jews celebrate Hanukkah with rituals involving the dreidel, the menorah, and gift-giving, many Jews born in the Soviet Union placed much less emphasis on Hanukkah and observed no traditions related to it. In an interview with the artist Ann Krasner (conducted for the Wende’s upcoming film From Red State to Golden State: Soviet Jewish Immigration in the City of Angels, An Oral History about the Soviet Jewish experience in Los Angeles), she remarks on her lack of familiarity with many Jewish rituals saying, “…we were deprived of [religious traditions] completely, in my family in Russia when I was raised, there was nothing Jewish on the table …my parents were missing that Jewish education, and they didn’t give it to us,” and she goes on to speak about having to learn religious traditions from American Jews: “…we try to observe Jewish holidays, we love to visit other families in Malibu who are more religious, and have more traditions, so we learn from them.” In sum, because Jews were frequent targets of Soviet persecution, open participation in religious activities frequently resulted in negative repercussions from the state; as a result, Jews who remained in the Soviet Union lost knowledge of Jewish ritual and tradition which had an impact on the ways in which Hanukkah was celebrated.
Christmas celebrations were also relatively meager and often limited to private homes and services within state sanctioned churches. While some celebration might be tolerated, it was hardly encouraged by the state. Enn Tarto, the Estonian dissident, provides a riveting account of how several Christmases in Soviet-occupied Estonia were affected by Soviet repression. The first Christmas memory he described was in 1956; on Christmas Eve, the KGB observed him celebrating Christmas with members of an underground youth movement. The next day (Christmas Day), he was assaulted and taken into custody for his participation in the youth movement’s activities. While being interrogated, he was taunted by members of the KGB and wished a, “Merry Christmas,” before being sent to prison. The second Christmas he recalled (1958) found him still imprisoned for his involvement with the youth movement two years prior. On Christmas day, the prisoners were celebrating Christmas with Christmas trees, cookies and religious observances when prison staff attempted to stop their observance of the holiday. The prisoners resisted, and considered it a victory when they were allowed to continue their celebration. During the last Christmas he recounts (1984), he was in a death camp and he and his cellmates sang Christmas songs and attempted to light a candle they had placed next to a small twig of a fir tree (all that they were able to muster for the observance of the holiday). The guards, however, would not tolerate even this meager celebration.
While Hanukah and Christmas celebrations were heavily discouraged due to their religious affiliations, the Soviet authorities realized that many people were used to observing a winter holiday and thus attempted to transfer people’s wintertime celebratory zeal onto a secular celebration of the Novy God. This transfer was extremely effective and many Jews and Christians alike were enthusiastic about this secular holiday, not only because it allowed for gift giving, special holiday meals and heavy drinking (including the drinking of Soviet champagne: see image), but also because many of the rituals and symbols the State chose to represent Novy God were reminiscent of Christian (and perhaps even Jewish) rituals. For example, two prominent motifs associated with the holiday were the Novy God fir tree decorated with ornaments, lights and a star, as well as two stories and icons featuring “Grandfather Frost,” an elderly white-bearded, gift-distributing man resembling Santa Claus. Another icon with possible religious origins that was used on many Novy God cards was a lit candle, which perhaps was supposed to be a reference to the lighting of candles on the Menorah during Hanukah (see image) and is a symbol Christians use during the Christmas season as well.
Novy God Card in The Wende collection
Some say that part of Novy God’s widespread appeal can be attributed to its lack of a Soviet-ideological basis, (unlike May Day, the Great October Soviet Revolution Day or other worker-oriented holidays created by the Soviet regime). “It was the best, cleanest, most joyful holiday. It was completely clean of ideology,”(Boston.com) said Masha Buman, a woman currently living in Israel but originally from the U.S.S.R. However, while not “based” on Soviet ideology, the state still used Novy God material culture as a vehicle for pro-Soviet messages and iconography. Frequently, images on Novy God cards not only depicted non-political idyllic winter landscapes, Father Frost or Novy God trees, but also incorporated Soviet motifs like the hammer and sickle, cosmonauts and graphics showcasing the might of Soviet industry. This iconography was probably fueled by the State’s desire to use people’s enthusiasm for Novy God to engender goodwill towards Soviet aims. An excellent example of this can be seen in a decorative plate in the Wende collection depicting Grandfather Frost holding a watch standing with a happy child wearing a “CCCP” helmet next to a Soviet rocket (see below).
Plate in The Wende collection featuring Grandfather Frost, a Soviet rocket and a child in a cosmonaut helmet
The inclusion of ideological material, however, did not seem to dampen people’s fondness for Novy God. In fact, the holiday was so beloved that many continue to celebrate the holiday even after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In America, despite Novy God having several elements reminiscent of Christmas, Jews from the Soviet Union continue to carry on traditions they formed around this holiday, including seven- to eight-hour meals featuring many courses of Russian food, listening to Russian music, and drinking tea and vodka. Novy God is also enthusiastically celebrated in Israel since over a million former Soviet citizens moved to Israel after the dissolution of the U.S.S.R. While there is some resistance to the celebration of Novy God in Israel as a result of its superficial similarities to Christmas, acceptance of the holiday has grown over time. While Israeli Rabbis still often discourage the display of many Novy God decorations, many Novy God items like Grandpa Frost and ingredients for traditional Novy God dishes (like canned peas and mayonnaise) are increasingly displayed and associated with the holiday in supermarkets and some hotels.
Novy God card in The Wende collection featuring Soviet Champagne
The differences in how the winter holidays were dealt with under Soviet rule and how they are approached in America is apparent in the material culture, and it reveals key differences in the societies as a whole. In the former, the relatively intense scrutiny of citizen behavior, lack of religious freedom, and willingness to use force, occur not just during the holidays but also year round. Since stories of holiday experiences reveal deep and enduring societal motifs and features one hopes that over time more people will come forward with stories of their Christmas, Hanukah and New Year’s traditions in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.
We hope you enjoy the holiday season. We wish you a merry Christmas, a happy Hanukah and encourage you to eat your fill of canned peas and mayonnaise for Novy God.
For information on The Wende’s upcoming film From Red State to Golden State: Soviet Jewish Immigration in the City of Angels, an Oral History, click here.