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History of New Year celebrations in Russia

TASS-FACTBOX. The year 2019 has begun. TASS-FACTBOX offers a look at the history of New Year celebrations in Russia.

Holiday’s origins

From the adoption of Christianity until 1700, Russia used the Byzantine calendar, which dated back to the world’s creation, that is, the year 5508 BC. Russians initially celebrated New Year in March but the holiday moved to September 1 in the 15th century. On that occasion, a festive ceremony usually took place on the Moscow Kremlin’s Cathedral Square, as well as a church service, attended by the tsar, the patriarch, bishops and members of the nobility.

In December 1699, Tsar Peter I issued two decrees, which introduced a new chronology system, which counted years from the birth of Jesus Christ, and ordered that the coming of a new year be celebrated on January 1. However, the tsar refrained from introducing the Gregorian Calendar that many European countries had switched to, so Russia continued to use the Julian Calendar, celebrating New Year 11 days later than other Europeans. With time, the gap between the two calendars grew, reaching 13 days in the 20th century.

Fir tree as a symbol

Peter I also ordered to decorate Moscow’s thoroughfares and nobility’s homes with fir trees and pine branches. The tsar had borrowed the tradition from Europeans living in Moscow’s German Quarter (presently known as the Lefortovo District).

The townsfolk were told to congratulate each other, burn fires on the streets, shoot rifles and launch firecrackers. A firework display took place on Red Square. New Year celebrations lasted seven days back then.

In 1982, the first fir tree was set up for public view in an entertainment pavilion in St. Petersburg’s Yekaterinhof Park. Members of the nobility, merchants and manufacturers organized charitable celebrations for kids.

Sweets, fruit, ribbons and candles were initially used to adorn Christmas trees, but later special decorations came along, which were usually Christmas-related. People started to decorate their trees with small bells, figurines of angels and shepherds. As time passed, glass Christmas decorations started coming from Germany, and at the end of the 19th century, the production of glass balls began at a factory near the Russian town of Klin.

October revolution’s consequences

In January 1918, the Council of People's Commissars of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic passed a decree introducing the Western European Gregorian Calendar. The Russian Orthodox Church rejected the change and continued to stick to the Julian Calendar. This is why Russian Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas on January 7, which corresponds to December 25 according to the Julian Calendar. At the same time, a new unofficial holiday emerged - the Old New Year - which is celebrated on January 14.

In the first years of the Soviet Union, the tradition of Christmas and New Year celebrations continued. Special New Year parties for the children of state and party officials were held at the Grand Kremlin Palace. However, in the mid-1920s, a campaign against religious prejudice was launched across the country. As a result, Christmas was banned in 1929.

Revived holiday

On December 28, 1935, the Pravda newspaper published an article by Second Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party (Bolshevik) of Ukraine Pavel Postyshev, entitled "Let’s arrange a fine New Year party for children!" He suggested "the wrongful condemnation of the New Year tree" be stopped.

On January 1, 1936, the Pravda’s front page featured a photo of Joseph Stalin and his New Year greetings. At the same time, a New Year party for children and youngsters took place at the House of the Unions’ Column Hall. The party involved the key New Year character, Ded Moroz (of Father Frost), who was joined by Snegurochka (or Snow Maiden) a year later.

Starting from 1954, New Year parties for kids were held in the St. George Hall of the Grand Kremlin Palace.

In the 1970s, Soviet leaders started the tradition of addressing the country’s people on New Year’s eve. General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union Leonid Brezhnev was the first to make such an address, which was broadcast on the national TV on December 31, 1970.

In the Soviet era, the holiday’s features changed. The Star of Bethlehem was replaced by a five-pointed red star. Figurines representing the Kremlin towers, cosmonauts, satellites, wheat sheaves and the like were now used instead of nuts, fruit and figurines of Christmas characters.

New Year celebrations in Russia

A real fir tree was for the first time installed on Cathedral Square within the Kremlin’s walls in December 1996 at then Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s initiative. The main celebration - the All-Russia New Year party, which is also called the "presidential" party - takes place at the Grand Kremlin Palace. More than 5,000 children from all Russian regions attend the party every year.

On the New Year’s eve, the Russian president address the country with greetings. After that, at the stroke of midnight, TV channels and radio stations broadcast the chime of the Kremlin’s Spasskaya Tower’s clock, which is followed by the national anthem.

Holiday vacation

The official dates of the New Year holidays in Russia changed many times. January 1 was declared a non-working day in 1948, while the January 7 Christams holiday became a non-working day in 1990. In 1992, January 2 was also declared a day off.

From 2013, official New Year holidays last on January 1-8.