Fir trees, white flakes that recall the pure snow of the Russian winter and colorful decorations are on full display at the Kinga Sefer book store in the town of Kfar Saba. Figurines of Ded Moroz (Father Frost) dressed in his red coat and his lovely granddaughter Sanguruzka (the Snow Maiden) are at the center, to the wide-eyed delight of the kids. For the last 15 years, the store has held a Novy God fair, where customers could buy fir trees, decorations, calendars and gifts. In Russian, Novy God means New Year, and it seems that at the start of the second decade of the 21st century, the phrase is no longer foreign to any Israeli.
“I hadn’t known this holiday until the last few years. It’s not a holiday I grew up with or was celebrated in my family. I was exposed to Novy God through my daughters, who got to know it through their friends. They liked the holiday and told me they wanted to celebrate Novy God, to take part in this culture and tradition,” Yuval Zipper, a native Israeli who lives in Tel Aviv, told Al-Monitor. He added that he has been celebrating Novy God for a few years now.
The holiday, which observe the end of one year and the start of the next, came to Israel along with a million immigrants who came from the Soviet Union and the Commonwealth of Independent States. Many brought their favorite fir tree decorations with them and were surprised to learn that the holiday was unknown and not celebrated there. Tal Reznik, who immigrated with her family from Ukraine, told Al-Monitor that she experienced “a culture shock” when she told her friends at school that she has a decorated fir tree at home and that she wouldn’t be in school on Jan. 1. “They said to me: ‘What, are you Christian? You’re not Jewish? Why do you celebrate St. Sylvester’s Day?' I didn’t know what they were talking about, who’s Sylvester?”
In the secular Soviet Union, people didn’t celebrate St. Sylvester’s Day — a Christian saint the Soviets hardly heard of — nor did they celebrate Christmas. At the beginning of the 1930s, Soviet leaders borrowed the main symbols of Christmas — a fir tree, gifts and St. Nicholas (Santa Claus), who got a new name — Ded Moroz — for a new holiday without religious significance. Instead of Christmas, Soviet citizens began to celebrate Novy God en masse, along through the years became the most beloved Soviet holiday, the only one without political or Communist Party associations.
With time, various Novy God customs developed, from plays and costumes at preschools to certain foods and favorite films, which will forever be associated with the holiday spirit. While in Europe and the United States people go out to celebrate New Year’s Eve, for anyone who grew up in the Soviet Union, Novy God is mainly a family holiday. For this holiday, people drink Soviet champagne, eat caviar sandwiches and Olivier salad with potatoes, mayonnaise and green peas, and watch Soviet cult films like "The Irony of Fate."
All of these customs were easy to replicate in Israel. During the 1990s, for instance, immigrants would buy fir trees in the Old City of Jerusalem and Jaffa, where Christian Arabs who celebrate Christmas shop. In the middle of a regular work and school week there was a magical time around the family table.
Not everyone in Israel was culturally sensitive toward the new holiday. For many years, toward the end of December, newspapers would regularly print attacks on Novy God, especially from politicians and rabbis who used the opportunity to attack immigrants and accuse them of celebrating Christmas and not being Jews. Children of Russian-speaking families related harassment by teachers who purposely scheduled exams very early on Jan. 1.
The situation started to change in the past decade, as a law was passed in 2011 that allows workers to choose Jan. 1 as a vacation day from work. At the same time, Russian-speaking activists and politicians started promoting the holiday through an initiative called “Israeli Novy God.” Today, one can see many offices and shops throughout the country decorated for Novy God in December, chain stores holding sales around the holiday and the Ministry of Education allowing students who celebrate to be absent on Jan. 1. Indeed, Novy God has become an Israeli trend.
Vadim Blumin, an educator and the founder of Generation 1.5: Russian Speaking Young Adults, told Al-Monitor about the Israeli Novy God initiative: “We felt that Novy God celebrations are the biggest open secret in Israel. Immigrants from the Soviet Union are already there for 25 years, and they all celebrate this holiday that has nothing to do with religion. I got tired of explaining to people that Jesus wasn’t crucified on a fir tree, that it has nothing to do with St. Sylvester, and we decided to do something. We thought that like for the Mimouna holiday [celebrated by Jews of Moroccan origin in April], everyone looks for Moroccan friends to invite them over to celebrate, so it would be nice for native Israelis to be hosted at Russian speakers’ homes for the holiday.” This year he organized a Novy God event in Ramat Gan, a city to the east of Tel Aviv, that will include a musical performance, crafts, gifts and traditional holiday foods.
Vitali Kabakov, the owner of the Kniga Sefer bookshop and small publishing house, told Al-Monitor that in recent years he has noticed that customers coming to his shop to buy fir trees and decorations are increasingly not Russian speakers. “I see a lot of native Israelis and immigrants from France, Spain and Italy,” he said. “In many cases, these are families with kids who saw fir trees at their friends’ and they ask mom and dad to celebrate, too. You may ask why they want to celebrate. Because it's a secular, happy and pretty holiday. A few years ago, I still had to defend myself to those who would shout at me ‘Sylvester,’ ‘gentile’ or ‘Christian.’ This year this hasn’t happened even once."
He emphasized, “I think today there’s more openness to different customs and cultures. Just as Mimouna has become a national holiday, so Novy God has become a holiday for Israelis and not just immigrants from the 1990s."
Even if some criticism is still heard from rabbis this year, it will be drowned out by the holiday cheer, as those who celebrate Novy God greet each other with the traditional greeting, “S’novim godom, s’novim shastyim” ("New year, new luck").
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