While most Israelis now recognize the Russian Novigod holiday, over 70% still do not see it as part of Israeli culture. The large number of people who immigrated to Israel from the former Soviet Union now constitute roughly 20% of the population. Although their children who were born in Israel never saw the big holiday of Novigod in the Soviet Union, they are now adding this tradition to the other Jewish holidays which they learned to celebrate in school and brought home. The majority of their parents never had a chance to celebrate other holidays, Jewish or Christian, as the only holiday celebrated nationally was Novigod. True, the decorated tree looks very much like a Christmas tree, Ded Moroz looks like a slavic Father Frost, and the presents under the tree are reminiscent of Christmas, but this is not a religious holiday. It is celebrated on the 31st of December, and toasted with Champagne at midnight.
I have been exposed to the tradition at the municipal country club I belong to for use of the swimming pool. Many of the people I meet there are former immigrants from the Soviet Union, and Russian is the predominant language. I am often spoken to in Russian, and the people are surprised when I say I do not speak it. By now I have managed to pick up a fair bit so I understand, but I can only speak a few words. Much of what I hear these days, as we get closer to the date, is the exchange of recipes. Traditionally families get together to an elaborate meal where wine, beer and vodka are consumed, together with potato salad smothered in mayonnaise, herring in various forms, red caviar, cold cuts and lots of thick sliced bread. At least one shot of vodka has to be consumed before the midnight Champagne in order to wash away the past year. You might wonder how I was able to learn all the details if I do not communicate in Russian, but some of the swimmers have picked up Hebrew fairly well, and I became friendly with them.
One thing that is not usually followed is the custom of the young children dressing up and having costume parties on the 1st of January. The masquerading of the Purim holiday has taken the place of those costume parties. Both in Russia and in other western countries with large Russian immigrant communities the costume tradition is still alive and well. Little girls dress as Sniegurachka, Ded Moroz’s young sidekick. This is usually an elaborate costume in white or blue and the headwear is the main attraction. There are differences in the outfits and the headdress between ethnic regions. It is interesting that even some orthodox Jews celebrate Novigod with a tree and definitely with vodka. No matter what the holiday is called and what it seemingly celebrates, the abundance of lights and joy are evident in all the celebrations of the darkest time of year, and bring light to conquer the darkness and bring hope for a bright future.
Those who do not celebrate Novigod are still celebrating the coming of the New Year: parties and dinners at restaurants all feature special countdowns of the last minute before midnight. In some locations fireworks are the traditional symbol for the arrival of the new year. When we were in Canada, we used to watch on television the enormous gathering for the countdown at Times Square in New York. The Pacific Island of Tonga is first to ring in the New Year and celebrates at 10am GMT on December 31 – making the tiny island nation the first to head into a fresh year. The last place or places to ring in 2022 will be the tiny outlying islands of the US – Baker Island and Howland Island are the last ones to ring in the New Year at 12pm GMT, January 1 – but as they are uninhabited, they don’t get much press.
Different religions and nations celebrate their New Year at different times of the year, but the Japanese New Year occurs on January 1st as well. Celebration of their new year, Shōgatsu, entails feasting on a medley of different traditional foods. For example, on the eve of New Year’s the Japanese will partake of buckwheat noodles, which symbolize longevity. Traditional foods on Jan. 1 include osechi ryori (an array of colorful dishes packed in special boxes called jubako), prawns, and rice cakes.
The rampant infection rate of the new COVID strain, the Omicron variant, has put a damper on many plans for parties in the US and Canada. The governments are placing restrictions on large gatherings and urging people to have small family gatherings with emphasis on making sure the guests are vaccinated. In Israel, even though the prime minister warned that the country is on the brink of a storm of infections, there are no formal restrictions on the size of gatherings. Restaurants all over Israel are still full of customers, and hotels are full. The newspaper (Haaretz, Dec 29, 2021) reports that hundreds of thousands of Israelis plan to attend New Year’s parties this weekend. Let’s hope no one pays with their life for their frivolous behavior. As for my husband and I, we will not watch fireworks this year, since midnight of the 31st falls on Friday night, and we do not watch television or the computer on Shabbat. We will retire early for a good night’s sleep in order to wake up to a bright new 2022. Happy New Year to all!