On a recent night, a jolly old man with a long white beard and a sack of gifts visited the homes of Jewish children around the world. The next morning, under an evergreen tree decorated with glass ornaments, these Jewish children found more presents.
But it’s not what you think. The night was Dec. 31, the jolly bearded old man was Ded Moroz, or Grandfather Frost, and the tree is not a Christmas tree – it is a Yolka tree, the Russian word for “spruce.” The holiday was not Christmas, but Novy God, the Russian New Year, which is enjoyed by Russian Jews throughout the North Shore.
Jane Mikityansky, an information systems engineer from Marblehead who grew up in Moscow, estimated that around 70 percent of Russian Jews in the area still celebrate this major Russian holiday.
“That was the only big celebration we could have for the whole year,” said Mikityansky, who grew up in the Soviet era, when any type of religious celebration – Christian, Jewish, or otherwise –was banned. In fact, Mikityansky was not even aware that the Yolka tree resembled a Christmas tree. “Christmas was not even a word there,” she said.
The tradition of the tree began in the early 19th century, when the Prussian-born wife of Tsar Nicholas I brought the German tradition to the Russian court. As the century continued, more and more elements of Western European Christmas began seeping into Russian New Year’s celebrations.
Novy God’s close resemblance to Christmas traditions has made some Jews uncomfortable, including Mikityansky. In fact, shortly after arriving in America, Mikityansky stopped celebrating the holiday, worried that that it would confuse the children she wanted to raise Jewish.
Reed Brockman, a structural engineer from Marblehead, also was unnerved by the traditions after he married his Russian wife, Larissa.
“I grew up in a pretty conservative Jewish house, so the tree thing took me by surprise,” said Brockman. “The deal is I don’t want to have anything to do with the tree on Christmas. Christmas has to be over. I’m still not completely comfortable with the idea of a tree.”
Since most places that sell Christmas trees are empty after the holiday, Brockman scours the neighborhood for discarded trees.
“You feel like a crook – you hear the ‘Mission Impossible’ music as you get out of the car,” he said. After Brockman is able to stealthily haul a tree into the car, it remains standing until mid-January, or “Old New Year,” a smaller celebration marking the New Year according to the traditional Julian calendar once used in Russia.
Still, most Russian Jews still associate the tree with a secular holiday and fond childhood memories, and celebrate Novy God wholeheartedly. That means learning the many traditions that accompany it. First, there is the meal, which begins with the Olivier salad, a classic Russian plate usually consisting of some combination of potatoes with peas, carrots, onions, meat, pickles, eggs, and mayonnaise. The Novy God meal contains other staples of Russian cuisine, such as herring and cabbage, blintzes, salmon caviar, and pickles.
Olga Belyakova, a medical billing manager who grew up in Moscow and now lives in Lynn, enjoys a host of other Novy God traditions, from a top to bottom cleaning of the house on New Year’s Eve, to young children reciting poems and songs to Grandfather Frost in order to receive gifts, to watching classic Russian New Year’s movies, to an especially unique tradition at the final countdown.
“You make a wish and drink champagne [an act that is forbidden until after midnight] and then your wish is going to come true. Or, you have 12 seconds to think about your wish, and then make one major wish, then again, you welcome the New Year by drinking champagne. Some people – they have to write their wish on a napkin, you have to burn this napkin, put it in your champagne, and drink the champagne with the ash of the burnt napkin,” said Belyakova.
In America, Novy God is relatively unknown outside of the Russian community, but in Israel, where Russian Jews form roughly 10 percent of the total population, the holiday is gaining more attention – and some might say notoriety. First, there is the issue of the tree. In Ashdod, where the population is 25 percent Russian-speaking, the Orthodox deputy mayor of the city tried to remove a Yolka tree from a shopping mall.
Similar tensions erupted over Novy God decorations in a Tel Aviv suburb. In Israel, Dec. 31 is often called “Sylvester,” because in some European countries it is the feast of Saint Sylvester, in honor of an anti-Semitic medieval pope. For many Israelis, marking the feast of St. Sylvester with what appears to be Christian imagery is a tough pill to swallow.
Still, Elena Ulanovsky, a writer and film producer from Andover who was born in Ukraine and lived in Haifa for many years, said these tensions are inevitable, but small. “It’s not that bad – it’s a regular thing that happens when you put two cultures together,” she said. “Slowly but surely, people get used to it. There’s a Hebrew expression: sabah l’masabah: another reason for a party.”