Russian Old New Year: What Is It?

If you think that the spirit of the New Year’s is over, you cannot be more wrong. The party’s still going on in Russia, where on 14th of January every year people celebrate Russian Old New Year.

A year that is old and new at the same time, I hear you asking?

Not really.

So what is it then?

To demystify the nature of the Old New Year in Russia, we’ll need to dig back to the history of calendars… Keep on reading to find this out!

Russian Old New Year:
What Is It?

Old New Year in Russia

A brief history of calendars

There’re numerous types of civil calendars – Chinese, Hebrew, Islamic, etc. – that all have their own chronology system.

In Christianity, however, there are two calendars: Julian, introduced by Julius Caesar in 46BC, and Gregorian, introduced by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582. The difference between the calendars is only 0,002% in the length of the year, which seems minimal at first. However, from 46BC to 1582 it was discovered that there were none other than 13 days lost in the year.

In modern layman’s terms, that’s almost 2 weeks of paid vacation!

Such big error in the calendar caused huge distress to the Catholic Church because it meant that Easter, Christ’s Resurrection, apparently hadn’t been celebrated on a proper day for centuries. So Europe switched from Julian to Gregorian calendar, and this way, what used to be the 13th of January is now the 31st of December — a date that is commonly celebrated as the New Year’s Eve.

And what used to be 6th of January in the Julian calendar, is now 24th of December, aka the Christmas Eve, in the Gregorian calendar.

Nowadays the whole world celebrates Christmas, New Year’s, and Easter under the Gregorian calendar.

But not the Russians.

The Russians have been continuously using the Julian calendar for more than a thousand of years. More importantly, they have based all their religious celebrations according to Julian chronology, and the thing you have to remember about Russians is that they were strict adherents of the Orthodox Church during Imperial era.

In 1918, however, when the soviets took over and this era came to an end, Christmas and New Year’s were basically cancelled. Bolsheviks, who wanted to start the time “afresh”, tried really hard to eliminate old customs and traditions — they even canceled Christmas trees, aka the Russian yolkas! (It is precisely due to this new ideology, by the way, the new soviet proletarian generation became atheist, even though historically the Russian nation has always been very religious.)

Despite those changes, the Russian society was still in desperate need of some kind of token and symbol that would represent family gathering, warmth, and hope. So the government re-introduced Christmas trees in 1935 as ‘yolkas’ and allowed to celebrate the New Year’s Eve – but only on December 31, because the “old Julian style” meant turning back to the past.

That said, many people still celebrated Russian Orthodox Christmas and Old New Year illegally, on the quiet.

Uprooting thousand-year-old traditions and alienating from religion was too much for a lot of Russians, so the custom survived the soviet regime – with certain damage, with fewer adherents, but it still survived.

In 1991, when the soviet government fell, people began to be very confused. They were now officially allowed to celebrate Orthodox New Year Eve on January 6, but the soviet tradition of December 31 was too strong to get rid of. Now everything was the other way around!

So instead of dividing the society, the Russians decided to celebrate two New Years (and two Christmases) to make it easier for everybody. Now they have two dates to celebrate the same cause – isn’t that very drunk, I mean, nice?


How is the Russian Old New Year celebrated?

Over the years, Old New Year stopped being as festive as the New New Year.

Still, there’s some traditional festive table, celebrating, and drinking going on, but now it’s more of a family holiday whereas the New Year is celebrated on a way bigger scale. Old New Year marks the ending of the winter holiday cycle that starts from Catholic Christmas and is followed by Gregorian New Year and Eastern Orthodox Christmas on January 7, which makes it 4 weeks of feasting and holiday spirit. Yes, 4 weeks.

New Year in March?

As confusing as it already is, the history of New Year in Russia gets even more complicated. Apparently, even the Old New Year wasn’t always celebrated on January 14.

Long time ago, before the Russians didn’t even exist as a nation, New Year was celebrated on March 22 – the day of vernal equinox.

It was natural to celebrate the beginning of the year in spring when nature awakens from winter’s sleep. Later, when Kievan Rus’ adopted Christianity through the influence of the Byzantine Empire in 980-ies, New Year was moved to the 1st of September. But it wasn’t a fast process – the Slavic folk were slow when it would come to change, so it’s only by the end of the XV century when people got used to the idea.

However, when they finally accepted the new trend, Peter the Great, the first Emperor of Russia, decreed in 1699 that from now on the New Year should start on January 14, like everywhere else in the world that was living under the Julian calendar. Problem was that the “Julian era” was on its decrease – nearly every European country soon switched to Gregorian calendar, therefore moving the New Year’s date two weeks back, to January 1.

The Russian people couldn’t handle such fast pace of change – after all they went through, now they had to adopt a new calendar? No way!

So ever since, 14th of January was considered the beginning of the year in the Orthodox Russia.

And I guess that will stay like that forever. After so many things that have shaken the world, nothing could move the tradition of the Old New Year – and let it remain so. 🙏🏻

Did you know about the Old New Year in Russia before?