Mr. Lieberman, the principal of Solomon Schechter Day School in Chicago, called all the Russian fifth graders into his office. He drew a triangle on the green chalkboard.
“This is a Christmas tree,” he said.
He drew a cross inside the triangle. “And this is why you can’t put up a tree anymore.”
Vitalik, Zhenya, and I protested in our broken English. Our families didn’t put up Christmas trees! We celebrated New Year’s Eve! By the ripe old age of 10, all three of us had experienced lives as “good Communists” and “dirty Jews.”
Accusing us of celebrating Christmas seemed unfair. He patiently listened to our arguments, but pointed at the cross inside the chalkboard triangle: “No tree. Now you can celebrate Chanukah.”
As an adult, I now understand Mr. Lieberman’s disappointment in the awkward Russian-speaking kids who couldn’t figure out milk and meat days, who couldn’t learn the Hebrew prayers, who didn’t understand why they had to give up their old holidays.
We were not what they expected. Having been rescued from the wreckage of an atheist empire and given a full scholarship to an expensive private school, we did not rush headlong to embrace our religious freedom.
After such a prolonged absence from Jewish life, we were in a state of cultural fugue. We continued to wander, unaware that we were already home, remained unresponsive when called by our Hebrew names. We held fast to our foster traditions, still believing we were Soviet.
I wanted to please the school principal and felt a burning shame knowing that, as we rang in 1990, in my house we would still put up a New Year’s tree. But we couldn’t trade New Year’s Eve for Chanukah.
Even in the days of late Soviet scarcity, New Year’s Eve delivered on its promise of abundance. In 1987, when the grocery shelves were empty, dessert was a metal spoon full of sugar held over a stove-top flame. We didn’t wait for the amber lava to cool. A burned tongue was part of the experience.
But on New Year’s Eve, Father Frost came to our school and gave all the kids a whole bag of chocolates. We stuffed them all into our mouths, forgetting to save any for our parents.
Preparations for the holiday started weeks in advance, as mothers, grandmothers, and aunts took the trolley or metro to the part of Kiev rumored to have a line. They waited for hours, hopeful but uncertain that once they got to the front they would be sold anything useful. It was an unwritten law that on New Year’s Eve, one must procure the foods needed for the celebration.
They hunted for these items, they made deals, they found people who could make things happen, they stood in lines before and after work. Arms aching from carrying their not-so-fresh kill across the city, it was usually the women who gathered the precious ingredients for a feast, no matter what it cost their wallet or their sanity.
Mr. Lieberman, unbeknownst to my 10-year old self, was correct. The seemingly secular Soviet New Year’s celebration was a slightly transformed version of Russian Christmas. Christmas traditions in czarist Russia reflected Peter the Great’s efforts to make Russia more like Western Europe, borrowing from French and German traditions.
The Bolsheviks banned Christmas entirely in 1928. In 1935, just a year before the show trials and the slow murder of millions during the years of the Great Terror, Joseph Stalin reintroduced the New Year’s Eve tree and the accompanying Russian folk characters of Father Frost and his granddaughter, the Snow Maiden, as a way of boosting morale.
The future-oriented, atheist Soviet New Year’s Eve adopted some aspects of Christmas celebration. People exchanged gifts, made a celebratory meal, and decorated a pine tree with ornaments and a red star topper.
Holiday dishes got a Soviet remake as well. The famous New Year’s Eve salad, Olivier, was a decadent French-inspired dish in czarist Russia comprising game hens, lobster, and caviar. In the Soviet period, it was reinvented as a potato salad made with canned peas, bologna, boiled eggs, pickles, and mayonnaise — foods that were actually available in Soviet grocery stores.
The New Year’s Eve meal began late evening on the 31st of December. The table was set an hour in advance, and guests admired the appetizer course (zakuski). Mayonnaise-laden salads were heaped into crystal bowls, green pickled tomatoes, sprats, cold cuts, deviled eggs, and red caviar stood next to sliced bread peeking out from under a cloth napkin. This would be washed down with cold vodka and cheap champagne.
Eating began at around 9 p.m., after the host made the first toast and wished everyone health, wealth, and happiness in the New Year — while the guests downed their first shot of cold vodka with a bite of pickle or herring.
Toasts, an essential part of any celebratory Soviet meal, were often written in advance. A well-composed toast was an opportunity to show off one’s knowledge of Russian literature and the ability to parody its most famous quotations.
The second course was a hot dish, most often beef stew, cutlets or pelmeni, meat-filled dumplings. Last was the dessert with hot tea, as well as mandarins, which symbolized good luck. At the stroke of midnight, the party welcomed in the New Year. Gifts were opened the following morning.
My family continued to celebrate Soviet New Year’s Eve in America for many years, but gave up the traditional foods, happily replacing them with takeout from our local Greek restaurant.
We put up a tiny tree, as if apologizing for its existence. Soviet New Year’s Eve slowly faded away as I got older and nearly disappeared — until I met my husband.
When Sam and I began discussing holiday traditions, he categorically told me that he would never have a tree, citing similar reasons as Mr. Lieberman, though he thankfully did not perform the “cross-in-the-tree” trick.
We would have a Jewish home, celebrate Chanukah, and a tree had no place in our festivities. Yet he was fascinated by the New Year’s Eve traditions, as he was by all things Soviet. It was his curiosity and culinary adventurousness that brought New Year’s Eve celebrations back into my life.
Each December, we make a pilgrimage to Marina’s Deli in Cincinnati to buy red caviar, Russian-style salami, green pickled tomatoes, sprats, and colorfully wrapped Russian chocolates, the same ones I still remember from my childhood, but now produced in a Brooklyn factory.
Sam enthusiastically finds new ways to make New Year’s Eve Soviet classics, sometimes with a bit less mayonnaise.
We don’t put up our New Year’s Eve tree until December 26, when Christmas is officially over.
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Sam’s Herring Under a Fur Coat Recipe
(Shuba in Russian)
About 1 lb. of herring filets in oil (available at Russian stores or online)
1 large white onion finely diced
1/4 lb. sour cream
1/4 lb. mayonnaise
Three large beets
Two potatoes, peeled
Three carrots, peeled
Six hard boiled eggs
Boil the potatoes in salted water until soft, remove and let cool, add the peeled carrots to the boiling water. Once they are soft, remove them and let cool. Add the beets to the boiling water and cook until a knife easily pierces. Once the beets are cool enough to hold, use some paper towels to rub the skins off.
While the boiled vegetables cool, combine the mayonnaise and sour cream and set aside. Chop the herring filets to a medium dice and place in the bottom of a pretty glass dish. Sprinkle the finely diced onion over the herring. Using a box grater, shred the boiled potato on top of the dish. It should look fluffy.
Apply a thin layer of the mayonnaise mixture with a spatula. Using the same box grater, shred the boiled carrot on top and then the boiled beets. Apply the rest of the mayonnaise mixture on top.
Using the small holes of the box grater, shred the eggs on top of the mixture.