This holiday season, the Wyoming Public Radio news team is sharing stories about memories and traditions that stand out to them. Reporter Irina Zhorov’s family doesn’t celebrate Christmas, but there’s still a tree and a Santa, sort of. She writes about her family’s tradition of celebrating the New Year the way they did in the Soviet Union.
Just before midnight, my mother helped dress us both in the bathroom. I wore a Santa suit with a formidable belly and white beard. My dad wore a tutu unearthed from my collection of retired ballet costumes, one of my mother’s lacy red braziers, a tank top that ended mercifully above the spot where his beer belly began to curve out. He’d agreed to dress up easily, but only after we assured him that he wouldn’t have to shave his severe mustache. I have never seen my father without his mustache. We guzzled champagne as we dressed.
In Russian lore, Santa is known as Ded Moroz, or Old Man Frost. Old Man Frost is undisputedly more gallant than the American Santa, outfitted as his is in long embroidered robes, like a wizard, and carrying a staff, which now that I consider it is also pretty wizard-like. Frost does not scurry down filthy chimneys, but rather he appears like a respectful shaman in full, ruddy bloom and evident largesse to personally bestow his gifts to the children. He travels with his granddaughter, Snegurochka, The Snow Maiden. Her origins are varied and murky in Russian fairytales, but in most versions she at some point melts. Though I wore an American Santa costume, I knew I portrayed Ded Moroz. My father played Snegurochka.
This is how New Years has always worked in my house: on Christmas Day, or the day after, when people start to put out their Christmas trees, we would scour the neighborhood for the best tree – preferably one with some good tinsel intact – and bring it home for a second round of festivities. We decorated the tree with a mix of store-bought and home-made toys, like tinfoil wrapped walnuts. As head tree procurer and decorator, my enthusiasm bordered on the charmingly obsessive. Like the Americans, we bought presents. I was also slightly compulsive about the present wrapping, so I would volunteer to wrap everyone else’s presents when I finished with my own. We’d stack the gifts under the tree, guarded by a giant wooden Nutcracker who once served as a prop in my dancing, and leave them there until midnight on New Year’s Eve.
I loved New Year’s.
I loved that it was not Christmas. I loved going to the Russian grocery store and running into all the other Russians who also loved New Year’s and were stocking up for their respective banquets. I loved the big parties we hosted. I loved pulling out the boxes of cheap glass toys. I loved how happy my family seemed together on New Year’s, and I loved that it was always a big deal.
But somehow, over the years, the little traditions we had built up started to chip away from the holiday we had cherished. When I was a teenager I dared to leave home one New Year’s (it was a disaster). When I went away to college my mother bought a fake tree. In moments of inattention from the New Year’s drill sergeant, yours truly, some people started opening presents before midnight. My mother, an innate nurse, sensed my despair. So the next year she rented a Santa suit for me.
When my father and I were dressed she gave me one of her giant biohazard bags, which she uses to dispose of contaminated medical equipment, to pack the presents into. Dad and I marched out at midnight, he with champagne in hand, me with a biohazard bag full of wrapped gifts, to surprise the children. There were a few Americans at our party that year and I remember their shock as we strolled around the tree and food-laden table, aunts reaching out to pat my dad’s belly and laugh, Ded Moroz kind of drunk and smiling. I remember looking at them through the narrow slit formed by my Santa hat and beard, and thinking, this is New Year’s!