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The More (Holidays), the Merrier

Michael Idov

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Grandma Celebrates
(Yelena Zilberman)
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In the Soviet Union, New Year's Eve was the one holiday when you'd stay in. No parades, no parties, no politics: it was the best day of the year because it was the only truly private one. Other nearby holidays, like Revolution Day and Army Day, were loud and heavy on khaki-colored hardware; by contrast, New Year's meant little more than family, close friends, a table and a few bottles of the oxymoronic "Soviet Champagne."

Granted, in my family, it also meant an amateur masquerade, and a bizarre game where you fought to break off pieces of a chocolate bar while wearing oven mitts. There were more traditional activities, too. My parents, Mark and Yelena, carefully decorated the New Year's fir with vintage blown-glass ornaments. Some of them dated back to the 1940s. Chief among those was an unfathomably scary clown head that was supposed to hang facing into the corner. The one year that it spun around on its string and faced the room, my grandfather died. Two events which, in my parents' minds, had a solid cause-and-effect relationship.

Finally, like everyone else in the country, we would watch "An Irony of Fate." It's a romantic comedy from the early 1980s that state television faithfully broadcast every New Year's Eve. The movie is the Russian "It's a Wonderful Life," except with more booze. The protagonist finds true love on January 1, after waking up hung-over in a different city from the one where he started celebrating.

In 1992, my family immigrated to the States, settling in Cleveland. The tree ornaments miraculously survived the move, including, to my chagrin, the clown head. There was, however, a problem.

In the new context, our beloved New Year's fir tree was now a Christmas tree, laden with religious significance. My family had been fiercely secular for the last five or six generations, but technically, we are Jewish. In Cleveland, we lived in a rickety apartment complex populated almost entirely by recent arrivals from the U.S.S.R., all Jews. And there was a tree glowing in every window. A few days before the new year, local Hasidic activists began knocking on people's doors, distributing free menorahs, and trying to get us to renounce our tree.

In apartment after apartment, the conversation went the same:

They said, "You're Jewish, and Jews are not supposed to have a Christmas tree."

"It's not a Christmas tree. It's a New Year's fir!" we insisted.

Still, free menorahs did their part, and my family began to half-heartedly celebrate Hanukah.

My mother Yelena says it's all about cooking Jewish. This year, we got potato latkes and apple latkes.

"But no Hanukah geld?" I ask.

"No," she laughs.

Then it's time for Christmas. We celebrate that in tribute to some Baptist friends who helped us out in the difficult late Soviet years. There were food shortages in 1990, and my mom befriended a woman named Margit from Finland. Margit proceeded to mail us care packages stocked with rice, pasta and the occasional life-of-Jesus video. So December 25, we say a toast to her.

Our New Year's fir tree goes up triumphantly on December 26. You can get trees at a pretty steep discount after Christmas. Our decoration ceremony hasn't changed a bit since the Soviet years, and still includes the horrifying clown. But now there's a new tradition whose genesis I missed. That's when the family's two rather surly cats, named, for some reason, Enrique and Tricia, get their own tiny tree.

Mom's bought all new ornaments that reference cats and mice. Sometimes the kitty tree goes up earlier, since our cats are presumably Christian. Um, okay, Mom. Moving on to what is still the main event: New Year's Eve.

Over the last few years, my parents tried celebrating it the American way, by going out to a concert or a restaurant. But they can't get the hang of that.

My mother complains that last year the restaurant had insufferably loud music.

Dad says next time maybe they should go to a quiet classical concert and sit in the last row, or better yet, in the basement of the building.

And my grandmother, Lidia, tries to referee the argument.

So this year it's back to a low-key evening at home, watching "An Irony of Fate," now on DVD.

But wait! We still have Russian Orthodox Christmas, on January 7, because, at this point, why not?

Still, we're not done yet, and neither is Russia.

Before the revolution, the Russian calendar was 13 days behind the Western one. So when the Bolsheviks synced the old country up with the rest of the world, people decided there was no sense in losing a perfectly good holiday. Russians still celebrate this phantom day, called Old New Year, on January 13.

"It means nothing to us, but it's an excuse to prolong the holidays," my mom says.

Or, in the words of my grandmother, "It's another reason to drink."

On January 14, the New Year's fir exits the house, leaving behind a trail of dead needles. Some of them will still be in the carpet at the start of the next go-around, now less than 11 months away.


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  • By Sam Revach

    From Peoria, IL, 12/16/2010

    Very funny, in fact hilarious. I learned as well about traditions of my fellow Jews I�d never head of. Great light hearted way to accept traditions, some for self preservation and some for the pure fun of it. What a great way to embrace life�

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