Every year, after the Christmas/New year holiday, around the middle of January, my students learning Russian in London ask me - what is the so-called "Old New Year" in Russia? How can the New year be old?

Old New Year - Старый Новый Год

A strange Russian celebration

I know it sounds strange – how can the New Year be old? When I was a kid, every year on the 13th of January I was struck by the awkwardness of this phrase, until I got used to it!

The difference between the Gregorian and Julian calendars

This curious celebration, the last event of the Russian New Year holiday marathon, came into being because of the difference between the Gregorian (new style) and Julian (old style) calendars. Russia used to follow the old Julian calendar until 1918, being two weeks behind Europe! Imagine the “jet lag”... Therefore the night of the 13-14th of January is the date of the New Year celebration before the calendar was changed.

Celebrating the Old New Year

It is usually a low key occasion, unlike the “real” New Year. Lots of people celebrate it by getting together and having a party. No fireworks or champagne, just a nice meal with your friends and family. Traditionally, it’s a time to remember your old friends and forgotten relatives, the ones you fell out of touch with, and try to revive old relationships and friendships.

The Old New Year is more significant for religious people, who observe a Christmas fast. Russian Orthodox Christmas is on the 7th of January (again, because of the discrepancy of the calendars – the Russian Orthodox Church has never accepted the new style Gregorian calendar) and true believers observe a 40 day fast that ends on the evening of the 7th. That means they cannot drink or eat meat at the regular New Year parties, but they get a chance to have a drink on the eve of Old New Year.

As this is the last day of the festive season, you are supposed to remove your Christmas tree and pack up your Christmas decorations on the 14th of Jan. Unlike in Britain, there is no belief that it will bring you bad luck if you do not do so, and some people keep their trees much longer! It is also a slightly sad occasion – the magic of Christmas and New Year is gone, parties and holidays are over, life goes back to its normal working mode.

The famous movie Старый Новый Год

Talking about the Old New Year, I can’t help mentioning a wonderful Soviet comedy movie, called “Stary Novy God” – a well of wit and wisdom which became a point of cultural reference. It follows the Old New Year celebrations of two completely different families – a working class one and an intellectual one, who happen to live in the same new block of flats. The head of the working class family works in a toy factory – he puts in a voice device into “talking” dolls (!), whereas the father of the intellectual family is a scholar/researcher. Both families are totally grotesque, with all possible clichés attached to them: a boy who is forced to take piano lessons but hates it, his posh but stupid grandmother who calls herself “an old worker of the cultural front”, a simple granny summoned from the country who does not understand city life (guess which granny belongs to which family!) People who have too much stuff and try to get rid of it because it is stifling them, versus people who are so intoxicated by the fact they can afford so much stuff that they keep acquiring things they are never going to use… The two families couldn’t be more different, and yet both fathers end up together drinking vodka in a public bath next morning, having run away from family hell.

But you should see it yourself. If you study Russian at an advanced level, you will find it interesting and can do it as part of your homework while doing a Russian course. It starts with a well known song called “Sneg Idyot”(It is Snowing), with a very Russian sort of lyrics and music. You can watch it here.

Time to get in touch with the old friends and make new ones

So Happy Old New Year, all the students Old and New! If you have lost touch with us, please come back to our Russian lessons in London, it’s a good time to look back and remember what you meant to do but never got round to doing… And if you haven’t done a Russian course with us before, but were going to, it’s a good time to start and make it your New Year resolution!