You haven’t truly experienced New Year’s Eve until you partake in the drinking and eating marathon that is Russian New Year’s, also known as Novy God. A secular fusion of Christmas and general debauchery, Novy God is a New Year’s Eve celebration unlike any other.
During the Soviet era, Christmas was erased from the calendar, but its traditions were too strong to suppress, so they were transplanted to New Year’s. While Russians do put up a tree for New Year’s, and you will find presents under it on the morning of January 1st, put there by Ded Moroz, Grandpa Frost, rather than Santa Claus, don’t be fooled—Novy God and Christmas share few similarities.
Russian Jews around the world have long celebrated Novy God. The one-million Russian-speaking Jews who immigrated to Israel in the 1990s brought Novy God traditions to the Jewish state, but until recently, many of them kept their celebrations under wraps after encountering Israelis who questioned their Jewishness given the decorated tree and presents. In just the past few years, younger Israelis of Russian descent have embraced the holiday, celebrating it with non-Russian friends. Last year, for example, one group created the Israeli Novy God Project, and this year, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shared a video clip in which he spoke about the holiday and wished viewers “S novim godom” (“Happy New Year” in Russian).
Novy God is a feast of appetizers, known as zakuski, that pair well with vodka. The various salads, pickled vegetables and main course (if you even make it to that) vary by region, but there are a couple mainstays without which Novy God would be incomplete.
Caviar and smoked fish are a must, served either on blini, Russia’s answer to crepes, or with white bread, butter and a mother-of-pearl spoon. Fermented pickles, tomatoes and marinated mushrooms are paired with vodka shots.
Next, you will find a spread of salads. The most famous is Salat Olivier (Olivier salad), made from potatoes, pickles, carrots, peas and sometimes boiled chicken or bologna. Salat Olivier is dressed with mayonnaise, like most other salads on the table. Another standout is Herring Under a Fur Coat (yes, that is the translation of the Russian name), which is Russia’s answer to a seven-layer fiesta dip and consists of layers of grated potatoes, herring, carrots, beets and eggs, alternating with layers of—you guessed it—mayonnaise. It comes as no surprise that Russians eat five-and-a-half pounds of mayonnaise per person per year.
My grandmother’s signature New Year’s contribution is her cabbage pie. Unlike American pies, this one is made of yeasted dough stuffed with a caramelized cabbage and egg filling and rolled into a strudel shape.
Beets also make a star appearance on the table, one of the few vegetables that persevere in Russia during the cold winter months. A salad of grated beets with garlic, prunes, walnuts and mayo (duh) is my family’s favorite.
After Putin wishes you a happy New Year and the clock strikes twelve at the Kremlin, the real party begins. Fueled by vodka and zakuski, a night of dancing and celebrating ensues. When it’s time to refuel, dessert is served. Arguably the most prized cake of all, Napoleon rules supreme for Novy God. At my mom’s Russian grocery store, Bazaar in Boston, they go through 150 trays of cake just in the one week leading up to New Year’s.
My fondest childhood memories are of Novy God with all my family and relatives gathered around a long table covered in zakuski and the glowing New Year’s tree in the room, while Russian pop stars provided the soundtrack at the annual New Year’s concert on TV. It was the one night I didn’t have a bedtime and was allowed to stay up until sunrise, although I could usually be found passed out on a chair by 3 am.
So next year, ask your Russian Jewish friend what they’re doing for New Year’s Eve—and see if you can snag an invite. I bet it will be your most fun one yet.
Top photo by Eduard Roytman, Beautiful Moments, LLC