One of the Jerusalem winter holidays, full of light and warmth and centered on family, are the celebrations of Novy God. A secular holiday established during the communist era, Novy God is celebrated by people of Russian heritage and has no religious significance. In order to learn about how the holiday was celebrated in the past and how it is celebrated today in different communities, we went to the Church of Mary Magdalene on the Mount of Olives to meet with Father Roman Gultyaev who immigrated to Israel as a child in 1989 from St. Petersburg, and today is a leading priest in the community.
What is Novy God?
Novy God (the New Year) is a secular holiday marking the beginning of the new year. In the past it was considered a peripheral holiday, but after the communist revolution it assumed a central role.
What happened during the revolution that caused it to become a major holiday?
The communist revolution in Russia in 1917 advocated an atheist ideology; and, the government was anti-religious and all religious activities - whether Christian, Jewish or any other - were banned. The religious holidays were taken out of the calendar, and thus the celebration of Christmas was canceled as well. One of the reasons that people celebrated this holiday in particular is that unlike the other secular holidays, which were very communist in their essence, this holiday does not have a distinct national significance. For this reason Novy God was easier to adopt.
What are the traditions surrounding the holiday?
Novy God was a very important holiday and many Soviet traditions developed around it. For example, 12 bells ring from the clocktower in Red Square, ushering in the holiday. Over time, new traditions developed centering on the ringing of the bells - there are those who write their wishes on paper, put the paper in a glass of champagne and drink it during the bell ringing - you need to finish drinking the glass before the bells stop ringing! Another tradition is to send out the old year with the opening of a window and to open a different window to the new year. Besides personal celebrations, Russian television broadcasts important and popular concerts on Novy God.
We noticed that there are also decorated trees in the living room?
Yes, there is a tradition to put an evergreen tree inside the house. At the beginning of the revolution, everything that was connected to religious symbolism was forbidden, including the Christmas tree which symbolized the power of life at the height of the winter. After World War II, when atheism was already well-rooted, the Communists returned to using the old symbols, but without religious connotation. Stalin himself reinstated the use of the Christmas tree, while severing the religious meaning of the tradition and casting it in a new, secular connotation. Santa Claus, as well, was forbidden during the communist period and replaced by Grandpa Frost (Ded Moroz), who over time became an important tradition in his own right. The new Grandpa Frost replaced Santa Claus but also had reindeer and a sleigh to deliver gifts to children. This tradition continues even today in Israel, but he doesn’t have reindeer here. Even so, perhaps it would be better for him to continue using reindeer and a sled rather than to get stuck in traffic jams on Jerusalem’s streets.
There is a question that we must ask - what do you eat?
Around Novy God unique food traditions developed: beet salad, Olivier salad (a potato salad with mayonnaise, eggs and bologna sausage), and classic foods like dressed herring or “herring under a fur coat” (a layered salad with beets, herring, potatoes, and egg). Other delicacies include Mimosa salad with cheese,eggs, mayonnaise and garlic, as well as others. And, of course, it is impossible without caviar (fish eggs), and a few bottles of good champagne. Interestingly, a food tradition of bringing mandarin oranges from Morocco and Israel developed - before diplomatic relations were severed after 1967.
What happens today in the Russian Christian community now that celebrating Christmas is possible?
It is actually interesting to see the change from before and after the revolution. Before, the revolution, Novy God was a holiday marking the new year and not more than that, because everyone was waiting for Christmas, celebrated on Janury 6. The new year was celebrated in earnest on Jesus’ birthday. Today it is still considered the most popular holiday among all the modern Russian holidays, but because the state calendar and the church calendar differ from one another there is a bit of a mess.
The holidays in Russia are organized according to the Julian calendar. The Soviet government moved to the Gregorian calendar. Thus, a discrepancy of 2 weeks was created. The church continued to hold the religious holidays including, of course, Christmas in accordance with the Julian calendar. Today because both calendars are used, a situation is created that there are 2 dates for Novy God, one according to the state and another according to the church. The state holds the holiday according to the Gregorian calendar on December 31, and the church celebrates according to the Julian calendar which comes out on January 14. The holiday is celebrated within the public sphere according to the state’s calendar on December 31.
An additional tension resulting from the difference between the calendars is the church custom to fast for 40 days before Christmas and refrain from eating dairy or meat products. With the change to the Gregorian calendar, and Novy God becoming a holiday of food on which you eat a lot of meat, it conflicts with these days of fasting. Devout Christians, therefore, who don’t eat meat during these days, place the holiday in a secondary role. (Don’t worry; after 40 days of fasting, on Christmas itself there are large meals with wonderful meat dishes so that believers also enjoy a feast. Even the monks, who always avoid meat, eat fish.)
How is it celebrated in Jerusalem?
The Christian faithful meet in their homes with their families. In each home they gather around a Christmas tree, wait together for the 12 bell rings, wish each other a good year, eat, tell about the previous year - the good and the bad, and toast the coming year. Every family has their own traditions on this day. In contrast to the family celebration, inside the churches nothing much happens and the monks and nuns do not celebrate the holiday. In recent years, you can see an interesting development, kind of a new tradition where the faithful who have always celebrated this holiday, are changing their traditions slightly. Instead of going out to drink with friends, they are coming to church for a service.
Who are the members of the Russian Christian community in Jerusalem?
In Jerusalem there is a small community whose members are mostly connected to the Church of Mary Magdalene on the Mount of Olives, the Holy Trinity Cathedral in the Russian Compound, and the church in Ein Kerem. Most of the faithful are found in the area of Tel Aviv, but on Christmas they come to Jerusalem from all over the country. The community includes local Israelis and a community of foreign workers who come to prayers. The foreign workers are a sort of community unto themselves, while still being connected to the larger community.
Besides that, because we are speaking of a holiday that isn’t religious, Russian Jews, and those who arrived from the former Soviet Union also celebrate the holiday in Israel and some are connected to friends and relatives who live in different time zones call to wish them S Novim Godom (Happy New Year) when the new year begins there.
We wish you and everyone - S Novim Godom - Happy New Year!