In all of the recent articles relating to Russian mid-winter celebrations, there has been a crucial omission on my part. It may be a seasonal fundamental, and indeed ‘normal’ for them, but decidedly alien to us. The Russians have two New Year’s celebrations. There – I said it!
The New New Year occurs on January 1st, whilst the Old New Year has to wait until January 14th for its occasion. Two New Year’s celebrations? Sounds great – but why?
It’s all connected to the way in which the Russian Orthodox Church keeps time, compared to the time-keeping of the Soviet Union. The former uses the Julian Calendar whilst the Soviets adopted the Gregorian Calendar in 1918 as part of their desire to eradicate the past and synchronise Russia with the rest of the modern world. However, there’s nothing more powerful than tradition to prove that old habits die hard – even Christianity couldn’t erase our pagan mid-winter Solstice festivities, and had to be content with merely renaming and redressing them.
Similarly, Russian Christianity’s Orthodox Church and its accompanying, ancient calendar survived 70 years of communism. Try legislating on the faith of people – it’s a minefield. With the survival of Orthodoxy, its important devotional dates remain extant and firmly embedded in the old Julian system.
It would be a fair question to ask why Russia was run according to Julian time-keeping; a system devised by Rome? The connection lies in the trail of Christian Orthodoxy leading from Rome, through the Eastern Roman and Byzantine Empires and ultimately into Russia itself via its adoption by the then Pagan Vladimir I.
Surprisingly, the Gregorian calendar was derived from the Julian Calendar, when a modification was introduced in 1582 to synchronise Easter to its official position in the Sidereal year, as decided by the First Council of Nicea in AD 325. Being linked to the Spring Solstice rather than a man-made calendar, the specific date of Easter would gradually drift relative to modern European time-keeping – a situation wholly undesirable to the ‘absolute’ mores of the early Christian Church. So the Gregorian Calendar was a work-around in an attempt to re-synch human and Sidereal time – hence the reason we always ask: “what date is Easter this year?”.
In Russia, the New New Year is the bigger occasion and a public holiday in Russia today, as it is over here. Much is made of the occasion, with exuberant decorations, copious eating and drinking, concerts, events and firework displays. “Christmas” trees are also present, with a particularly ornate example on display in Red Square. Appropriately enough, these have become New Year trees and survive from the New to Old New Year celebrations, with Christmas proper between the two, on the 7th January. Curious to us, but it makes perfect sense to them.
Old New Year is pretty much the same but less so. Some may even celebrate it as a more nostalgic or reflective time. It’s not an official holiday but has become something of a marker for the end of the festive season. Perhaps a time for family or observing more of the religious aspects of the festivities. That’s unless of course you believe that any excuse for a party is fine, in which case there is also plenty of opportunity to partake in mid-winter’s big send-off, work-night or not!
[Photo by harvardgradartis]