Welcome Back, Novyi God

Boris Kustodiev. Christmas tree bargain (Елочный торг), 1918

By Anya Zhuravel Segal

Novyi god, Russian for New Year’s, is the best. All the elements of a beloved family holiday are there: a rush to buy presents, delicious food, sparkling wine and festive decorations.

I almost gave it all up.

When I was in my early twenties, Rosh Hashanah and Passover waltzed into my life. As I was becoming observant, Jewish holidays were beginning to dictate the rhythm to my year. Novyi god was supposed to fade into the background like one more childhood memory, cherished but transient.

See, the focal point of any good Novyi god party is a Christmas tree. Or, rather, what seems like a Christmas tree to anyone unfamiliar with the background story. When the Soviets first banned all religious festivals in the twenties and then decided to institute New Year’s as the new secular festival for all some two decades later, they let the tree back in to play the main part. Decorated with a red star atop its furry branches, a yolka (Russian for fir tree) became part of the new secular tradition in the Soviet Union.

The problem is that Jews have a problem with Christian symbols, and yolka challenged my newly found Jewish identity, turning Novyi god into a suspiciously Christmas-like holiday.

When I used to go back to Moscow for New Year’s, the yolka was no longer there, in deference to my brother’s and mine newly found relationship with Judaism. Our mother threw some holiday lights on a fir tree in the garden instead. At night, the lights flickered in the dark, as if with reproach. After all, we banished the tree to exile because we decided, after some twenty plus years of enjoying its company in the living room, that it was a Christian symbol, no longer had a place in our vocally Jewish lives.

When my daughter was born in Israel 4 years ago, flying with her to Russia in December seemed precarious. I stayed at home in Jerusalem for New Year’s, yet I missed the festive atmosphere of the holiday. We had a small celebration at home, with sparkling wine and hors-d-oeuvres, and no tree. And the year after that, another one.

Today I have two children. This year my father is with us for Novyi god. The house is already full with presents and kids squeal in delight over the attention lavished at them. We are planning a party for family and close friends: my husband is baking a complicated, delicious chocolate cake, and we are stocking up on kosher cava.

My father brought us a plastic fir tree that has sat atop of a dresser in my late grandmother’s Moscow living room, summer or winter. This little yolka, with decorations visible under a bubble wrap, is for now in storage inside our guestroom closet. I do not know whether it will ever come out again at New Year’s time.

What I do know, however, is that Novyi god is a lovely holiday. My children have come to expect it, just like they expect eating matza and asking the four questions on Passover. Perhaps a Jewish life that is full and assured does not have a whole lot to fear from a holiday that delights in family and adds cheer during this dark time of year.

So here is to the year that was, and the year that will be. Welcome back, Novyi god. I love you.

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