Celebration of the New Year is one of my most enjoyable memories from Soviet childhood. There was the New Year tree (basically, a Christmas tree- but without a religious “affiliation”); there were presents from “Father Frost” (basically, a Santa Claus) and an all-night-long celebration of food and friends. Specifically for kids, there was a tradition of “Around the Tree” celebrations at schools, theaters, community centers, parents’ work places – complete with songs, silly New Year sketches, Father Frost appearances, costume prizes and more presents, often consisting of chocolates and tangerines.
After coming to the US some twenty years ago, at first I tried to “shield” my firstborn from the Tree for fear that it too closely resembled a Christmas tree and would confuse his Jewish identity. But the calls of my childhood were just too strong to resist. At first we took care to put our New Year tree AFTER Christmas was over – but before the New Year. The difficulty of finding a decent-looking tree AFTER Christmas did us in and by the time our daughter was born ten years later, there was no longer any resistance to the tree. We just CALL it a New Year tree and maintain our Jewish allegiances in other ways. (That is not to say that things are all so clear for Vi. This year, with Hanukah coming early on December 1, she asked me to put away the Hanukah lights so “Father Frost knows it’s Christmas.” I still believe that with some persistence, she too will learn how to tell NEW YEAR from Christmas!)
Vi goes to daycare owned by the family of Russian-Jewish owners. Many of the parents are also of the Russian Jewish descent and cannot resist the nostalgic magic of the New Years. So this year we invited Vi’s friends from daycare for “Around the Tree” celebration in our house. And despite the New Year all-nighter coming that night it was all so special to do it on December 31, the magical day for all Russian-born. So we enlisted a friend to dress as Father Frost and sang the traditional Russian “around the tree” circle songs. To recognize the costume tradition, we gave the kids animal masks to choose from and then played the “animal” songs from well-known Russian cartoon so kids could re-enact their animal character.
I am thinking chocolates and tangerines for next year presents. And maybe a New Year sketch comedy. A friend just published hers for the inspiration.