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Discovering Tradition

At the last day of this year 2015 I would like to welcome back Dr Gulara Vincent with the inurgal post for the Discovering Traditions guest series. You can find her first guest post on my blog here.

New Year’s Eve Celebration Soviet Style by Dr Gulara Vincent

As a child, I used to love the 1st of December. Not because there was some special festival on that day. But we were finally in December! That meant there were only 30 days before New Year’s Eve. I counted down the days to the celebration (why did time go so slow back then?). To make the wait bearable, I bought cards and wrote careful unimaginative messages to my family members. I also bought ‘khlopushkas’, poppers sold as tubes full of confetti. You had to pull a string and there was a pop with confetti scattering everywhere. Some tubes even contained a small toy or a carefully folded paper mask. I hated the pop it made, so I often made a hole on the top of a tube and took the contents out.

The period around the New Year was the time that TV programmes were at their best. I was allowed to stay up and couldn’t get enough tele. All the movies I loved, lots of cartoons and children’s programmes were lined up back-to-back all-day, every-day for about two weeks. It may sound pathetic, but that was one of my favourite parts of the celebration. Besides, it seemed that the New Year didn’t arrive without some programmes. Take “The Irony of Fate Or ‘Enjoy Your Bath’”. They showed this movie every single New Year’s Eve. It was a light Soviet comedy. Here’s a short synopsis. A bunch of friends gather every New Year Eve and went to… bathe. They drank vodka, and one of them was so drunk that his friends decided to play a trick on him. They popped him on an airplane from Moscow to Leningrad. Somehow he got off the plane and got himself into a taxi. He gave his address, and the taxi driver took him to the street he indicated. He got into the building that looked exactly like his (all Soviet-block flats looked pretty much the same). Miraculously, his key opened the door, and he went to sleep off his hang-over. The flat belonged to a woman, who discovered the half-drunk man in her flat. He claimed it was his home and refused to leave. It got complicated because the woman had a fiancé who was very jealous. Anyway, they got married in the end. He left for Moscow, but of course she knew his address and even had the same key. Ahhh, happy endings….

The house looked festive. We decorated a ‘yolka’ (basically a Christmas tree). I had an artificial one. My grandpa had bought it when he travelled to Berlin when I was little. Starting on 1st December, I nagged my uncles for days to get the dusty boxes with the tree and decorations down from the attic. Putting the tree together and decorating it with sparkly balls and a big red star was a sheer delight, and the sooner I did it, the longer it stayed. We usually dismantled it after 13th January. Strangely enough, on 13th January, Russians celebrated ‘The Old New Year’. Basically, when the old calendar changed, there were 13 days difference. People kept the tradition going, and some celebrated the arrival of the New Year twice. So, I had an excuse to keep our ‘yolka’ up until 14th January.

Although Azerbaijan had its own New Year celebration on the spring equinox, over the decades of the Soviet rule, it gradually adopted the calendar new year as its own festival. The celebration was embraced by the younger generation. My grandparents didn’t care much for it, whilst my mum and uncles were excited about it.

On New Year’s Eve, we gathered around the table to have a dinner at around 8pm. Grandma made predominantly national dishes, like dolma (minced lamb wrapped in vine leaves) and pilav (steamed rice served with caramelised onions, chunks of lamb, dried apricots, chestnuts and raisins). Perhaps the only Russian influence was ‘stolichni’ salad, a version of the Olivier salad. Fruit was expensive at that time of the year, but my grandparents made an effort to buy big red apples, mandarins, and sometimes even pomegranates. It was the only day in the year when there was champagne on our table, and mum was allowed to take a few small sips to mark the arrival of a New Year. I was too young to drink and grandma had never had alcohol in her whole life. Holding my hands over my ears, I watched my older uncle pop the champagne cork and pour the bubbly liquid into a few slim glasses, first at midnight, and then again at 1am. For years, I puzzled as to when exactly the New Year arrived. Azerbaijan was an hour ahead of the Kremlin clock. So, there was a half-hearted cheer at midnight, and a really big one at 1am when the people of the most of the Soviet Union clicked their glasses after the countdown.

‘However you meet the New Year, that’s how you’ll spend the whole year ahead,’ mum told me once.

Needless to say, I didn’t want to be asleep!

Author Bio:
Dr Gulara Vincent is a writer, blogger, and a university law lecturer. She lives in Birmingham, England, with her husband and two young children. You can visit her writer’s blog at http://gularavincent.com/blog or connect with her on Facebook (www.facebook.com/DrGularaVincent) and Twitter (@gulara_vincent).