14 Oct New Year Tree or Christmas Tree
Nothing Says New Year like the New Year Tree
My last post on the Jewish New Year made me think about secular New Year. And for a born-and-bred Soviet, there was no New Year without a New Year tree.
What is a New Year tree, you ask? Well, to make a long story short, it’s almost a Soviet Christmas tree. By the time my generation came along, the word Christmas was firmly archaic and thus as relevant as the word gladiator. Soviet people did not need religion-related vocabulary to greet a new calendar year. They did just fine decorating the New Year tree – colorful balls, figurines, paper snowflakes, chocolate candy, even a few tangerines – and topping it with a red “Kremlin” star.
On December 31, parties, often costumed, took place to which the invited guests could bring anyone they knew who had no place to go. No one should be left behind on New Year’s Eve. Before midnight, a toast said goodbye to the Old Year. At midnight, the New Year was welcomed, an activity that lasted until morning.
On January 1st, in the middle of the night, Ded Moroz (Grandpa Frost), a carbon copy of Santa Claus, placed presents under each child’s tree. Popular images showed him skiing to reach his recipients. He traveled with his devoted granddaughter, Snow Maiden. Celebrations continued for the first two weeks of January.
The tree tradition was sacred – all kids had a tree at home. Only I didn’t. Ded Moroz left my presents on the table—ribbons for my braids, a pair of stockings, funny-shaped cookies that tasted like my grandmother’s. He had some tea with my parents, they said, but couldn’t stay long. My father took me to performances at Kiev’s cultural venues where the Snow Maiden hopped with the children around the New Year tree.
We had no space for the tree, I was told. While I was little it didn’t occur to me to question the excuse—families that lived in smaller rooms managed to fit it in. When I got older, as long as I got a New Year gift the tree didn’t matter. Ditto for my children.
New Year Tree is Different
The light bulb, actually two light bulbs, went off in my head only when American Jews expressed their indignation at the sight of Christmas trees in the homes of Soviet Jewish immigrants. One: The tree was a religious symbol! Two: My stubborn family refused to accept the Christmas tree under any name!
Now finally, here is the long-ago episode that inspired this post. Late at night, the day after Christmas, Sybil, my neighbor across the hall, drummed on my door with unusual urgency. She pointed in the direction of the apartment next door to hers and whispered, “Isn’t Isenberg Jewish?” Isenberg was a Soviet immigrant like me and, yes, he and his wife were Jewish. Sybil’s face formed a “oh no!” expression. She proceeded to whisper the horror story of Isenberg carrying a Christmas tree into his apartment.
An immigrant of only a few years with a command of English to match, I attempted to assure Sybil that the New Year tree was religion-free, by definition. She looked dumbfounded. “But you don’t have one,” Sybil said accusingly. “You shouldn’t protect Isenberg only because he is your countryman.”