How my grandparents celebrated the New Year in Russia

Dec 29, 2017

Last year, for the first time in my life, I purchased a Christmas tree.

I was 21, back home from college on break, happy to be done with another semester. Whenever I’m home, I visit my maternal grandparents, Nataliya and Mikhail Malkes, and they enjoy treating me with tea, sweets and pleasant conversations.

My grandparents moved to the United States from Russia in 2013 to live closer to my family. For senior citizens in their late 70s, such drastic, life-changing moves are difficult. They both miss Moscow, their hometown. They miss their friends and they miss a life that cannot be recreated here in the United States, although we do try our best.

Walking into their apartment is like walking through a portal. One moment you’re in a middle-class neighborhood in Boston, and next thing you know, you’re transported into Moscow. The rugs, the paintings, the vases and the tea sets are of a different place and different time, pristine and meticulously cared for.

Last year, during one of my visits, my grandparents started reminiscing about their New Year’s traditions back in Moscow. I had celebrated New Year's with them for the past three years, so I was aware of most of their traditions. It was clear, however, that they missed having a tree.

In the Soviet Union, Christmas was not celebrated, unless in secret. Throughout the Soviet period, the government was anti-religious, and many were indoctrinated as atheists. But people still enjoyed the festiveness of a Christmas tree, so the tree was rebranded to be part of the New Year’s celebration, a secular holiday accepted by the authorities. My grandparents enjoyed this tradition and I could tell they missed it in the US. Somehow, during their first years in the United States, they felt uncomfortable getting a tree for New Year's. They felt that it might offend my family because it wasn’t our tradition.

Last year, I volunteered to buy them a tree. So after Christmas, I set off on this mission. My parents are both Jewish, so Christmas trees weren’t part of the holiday calculus for me. I grew up celebrating Hanukkah, lighting the menorah all eight nights while snacking on latkes and jelly donuts. I didn’t know the first thing about tree shopping. Upon arriving at Home Depot, I felt somewhat lost.

These were the leftover trees, the trees abandoned, unwanted, dangling outside the store — all for sale at a bargain, post-Christmas price. The only people perusing the trees outside with me were other Russians who seemed more experienced. This wasn’t their first rodeo. I finally chose a midsized tree that would fit in my grandparents’ apartment and dragged it over to the checkout.

The lady working at the register seemed confused. I could tell what she was thinking: What’s this kid doing buying a Christmas tree, days after Christmas? He’s late to the party. Jesus has already been born!

It’s hard to get all of that from one facial expression, but I swear that’s what she was thinking. She finally just up and asked. "Why are all these folks shopping for Christmas trees today?"

I explained that the Russian tradition is to have a tree for New Year's rather than Christmas. This wasn’t always the case, but it has been since the Soviet days. Maybe my explanation lingered a little too long for her liking, but she appreciated that I had a good answer to her question.

Buying the tree did feel strange, but I was comforted by the fact that it was for my grandparents and it was for New Year's. When I brought it back to their place, they were ecstatic. They decorated the tree with their old ornaments which they brought over from Russia. A little goose, penguins, pine cones, etc. Some of these ornaments were the same ones they used 70 years ago. Somehow, they hadn’t yet fallen apart.

Just by talking and re-examining my grandparents’ New Year’s traditions, I have learned a lot more about them and their childhoods. This year, I learned that whenever my grandfather eats a tangerine, going back to when he was a kid, he associates it with New Year’s.

When my grandfather was growing up, tangerines were a delicacy, a fruit that was certainly hard to get your hands on in Moscow. However, before New Year’s, his parents, their relatives or other friends would go south to the Caucasus region and purchase a fresh batch of tangerines to bring back. A bowl of tangerines was something worth celebrating in its own right. They would use them to decorate the tree, but would quickly lose patience and eat them. That smell and taste, and its association with New Year’s, hasn’t escaped my grandfather through all these years.

A year later, I plan on buying them a tree again (and maybe some tangerines as well). I’m still conflicted about the origins of this tradition, and whether it’s right for me to participate, due to my Jewish background. Ultimately, for me, it’s a lot less about the tree and much more about my grandparents. I’m trying to preserve something for them, which has become much harder for them to hold onto without some help.

I think ultimately this is what the holiday season is about — giving when you have the opportunity to do so, and learning a thing or two while you’re at it.


From PRI's The World ©2017 PRI