One of the most unique experiences that I had this year was ringing in the new year in Russia. For a bit of context, my friend Nikita invited us to join his family for an intimate New Year’s celebration at his uncle’s house. I don’t expect that everyone will have our experience, but I’m experimenting a bit with storytelling and I hope that you can enjoy reading about our New Year’s Eve celebration in Russia!
New Year’s Eve is a big celebration in Russia as Christmas was banned during Soviet times. In an
As New Year’s Eve is more of a family holiday, you may not find the kind of rowdy parties that you see elsewhere for New Year’s Eve although you can certainly head to the bars. It’s best to make a reservation for dinner as many restaurants may be closed.
If you’re in Moscow, you can head to several look-out points in the city to watch the fireworks. (My friend recommends heading towards Moscow State University to have the best view over the city.) People also head towards the Kremlin for iconic views of the fireworks along the river although you need to get there early and wait in the cold for hours to see the fireworks…
In Russia, New Year’s Eve is more of a family celebration, complete with a large meal, lots of tasty drinks, and a cozy ambiance. We ended up sharing our meal with my friend, his parents, his uncle, and family friends. The meal reminded me of a lot of Thanksgiving back home: a relaxed time where you eat until you’re stuffed, chat with family, and watch classic movies.
If you’re lucky enough to be invited, be sure to bring thoughtful gifts and possibly your own slippers (although most families will have spares). Simply, Russia hospitality is quite fantastic if you’re lucky enough to have friends who will host you. (Be prepared to answer a million questions about traditions in your home country!)
New Year’s Eve in a Dascha
My friend’s uncle has a spacious house out in the countryside outside of Moscow that we all stayed at. We were immediately welcomed by the barking of his nine dogs, which included one gorgeous Siberian and eight hounds. (Nikita initially promised us dogsledding, but the snow wasn’t deep enough last year for it!)
We had some initial concerns about the language barrier and imposing on Nikita’s family, however it was clear that we were very welcome guests. Nikita’s mom stuffed us with additional food every chance that she got–and took the opportunity to wrap me in a scarf whenever my nose looked cold. Despite a slight language barrier, we felt very much at home with our Russian hosts. (Luckily, we had Nikita to translate.)
On the morning of New Year’s Eve, we went for a walk in the forest together with one of the dogs, which has a typical Moscow region landscape. Nikita spent a while telling us about how it’s traditional for his family to come out the dacha to relax, hunt, and walk through the forests.
Nikita suited us up for our journey with wool boots and warm clothes. I was skeptical that our wool boots would stay dry,
The landscape was lush with many evergreens and birch trees. We walked along a trail that is often used for hunting rabbits. Beyond the echoing of some gunshots in the air, we could only hear the flowing of the stream and our own footsteps. It was absolutely beautiful yet stiill foreign.
After turning back towards the house, we made a fire with birch bark. Birch bark, once peeled, burns extremely easily (even if wet). Some of the earliest paper used by Orthodox monks was actually birch bark. We ended up making a small fire to warm ourselves prior to waiting until the last of the birch burned. (In summer, you can drink the sap from the birch tree, which is delicious and refreshing.)
Once we returned, we finally went for a dip in the banya at the insistence of Nikita’s parents. A Russian banya is an interesting experience. It’s relaxing to some although not as enjoyable to others. I shy on the side of exhaustion. After recovering, we watched classic Soviet cinema movies prior to listening to classical music by famous Russian composers.
Nikita cooked a delicious pilaf for us while his mother endlessly fed us other Russian appetizers, including caviar with sour cream (which we had for almost every meal). We even enjoyed homemade cheese and pickles that came from the neighbor’s cellar. Although not everyone was comfortable speaking in English to us, we were both blown away by the incredible hospitality shown to us during our time in Russia. This included many servings of “Russian champagne.” (A story for another day.)
As we ate and drank, Putin came onto the television to wish everyone a happy new year in a brief greeting. To my surprise, there were no fireworks shown on television, just Putin. At midnight, we toasted our glasses, too full to move, using the traditional saying that originates in the nearby village, rather than the popular cheers that you see in films and movies.
We got bundled up to shoot off fireworks outside. We all briefly lingered prior to heading to bed full and happy. We departed for Yaroslavl the next morning to explore this classic Russian city prior to visiting Sergiev Posad en route back to Moscow.
What struck me about celebrating New Year’s Eve in Russia is that no matter what politics occur on the global scale, we have the ability to connect meaningfully at the human-level to share in life’s memorable moments. Regardless of cultural differences, it’s really special to be able to share those moments with friends and loved ones.
This whole experience reminded me of the magic of those friendships and why it’s so important to stay in touch with friends. Simply, you’ll never know when you have the chance to share in a special moment. Take the chance if you are invited to celebrate a New Year’s Eve with a friend somewhere else.
It was quite a unique New Year’s Eve in Russia and I hope that this experience inspires you to spend a New Year’s Eve elsewhere. So far, I’ve spent New Year’s Eves in Amsterdam, New York City, and Reykjavik. I’m excited to see what 2020 brings as 2019 will be spent in the Hague.