RS Culture & customs The “Old New Year” – now that’s something of a riddle there!

The “Old New Year” – now that’s something of a riddle there!

Every year, on the night from January 13 to January 14, Russians celebrate the so-called Old New Year – a feast that seems to be totally incomprehensible for many foreigners. Looks like no one is capable to explain in fact – what is the difference between this feast and the traditional New Year, as we know it? Naturally, it would seem a date discrepancy. And still, we tend to treat the old-style New Year as an independent holiday helping us to prolong the joy and pleasure of the winter holidays. And maybe to feel them for the first time over, - since the situations vary, - because that day is far quieter than January 1, which is drowned in hustle and bustle. For many believers the old-style New Year has a very special meaning, since they can only indulge in real celebration after the end of the Advent fast.
© RIA Novosti, Yuri Abramochkin
Ded Moroz and Shegurochka
Ded Moroz and Shegurochka

Back in the pagan Rus the New Year was celebrated on March 22 – the vernal equinox day, this was due to the agricultural cycle. With Christianity establishing itself in Rus the Byzantian calendar gradually replaced the old one, and ever since the new year began on September 1. The confusion remained for a while, and in some places the New Year continued to be celebrated in spring. Only by the end of the XV century the new year was finally officially established in Rus as beginning on September 1.

Peter I decreed in 1699 that the New Year be transferred to January 1 in the old calendar, that is to say, to January 14 in the new calendar.

The modern-day New Year happens to be in the midst of the Advent fast – the 40-day-long fast in the Orthodox Church honouring the birth of Christ. Whereas in the Julian calendar all is just the way it should be - the Advent fast precedes the celebrations of the birth of Christ, six days after which the coming of the new year is celebrated

Almost all Protestant countries of Europe adopted the Gregorian calendar back in the XVIII century, dropping several extra days out. Russia, however, only adopted it in 1918. This switch to a new calendar resulted in changing the New Year date. January 1 according to the Gregorian style is equivalent to December 19 according to the Julian calendar, while January 14 is equivalent to January 1 according to the Julian calendar.

The Orthodox Church continues to celebrate all religious feasts according to the Julian calendar.

That is why, the old-style New Year day is important for people living in countries where the church continues to live by the Julian calendar (Belarus, Ukraine, Greece, Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia, etc).

The Old-style New Year tradition

In the old days, January 14 (January 1 in the Julian calendar) was known as St Basil’s day - the commemoration of Saint Basil the Great of Caesarea – and was crucial for the entire year.

This was the day for performing all possible ancient rituals and fortune-telling. The eventide (currently falling on January 13) was called St Basil’s evening. It was particularly important to unmarried girls who were keen on fortune-telling. They believed that whatever you manage to see on St Basil’s Day will most certainly come true.

The eve of St Basil’s Day was the time for all possible ancient rituals and fortune-telling. Young unmarried girls were particularly keen on this as they believed that whatever you manage to see on St Basil’s Day will most certainly come true

St Basil was held in popular belief to be the protector and patron of breeders and pork products, and people believed that if pork is abundant on the festive table on the eve of St Basil’s Day, these animals would breed in abundance and will bring profit to their owners. That is why the main festive course on St Basil’s Day was a pig that was roasted whole. According to popular belief, a roasting pig was a guarantee of prosperity for the whole of the coming year. There was also a custom of going from house to house and share potluck dishes with the hosts. On the night before St Basil’s Day guests had to be offered pork pies, either boiled or baked trotters, and generally any dishes containing pork.

There was one other custom adopted on St Basil’s Day – to cook porridge in compliance with a number of rituals. On the New Year’s Eve, at around 2 o’clock in the morning, the oldest of the women in a household would bring cereals (usually buckwheat) out of the barn, while the oldest of the men would draw water from a well or a river. No one was allowed to touch that cereal or water until the furnace becomes sufficiently hot, - they were just left on the table. After that, all went to the table and the oldest of the women began to stir the porridge in the pot while reciting certain ceremonial incantations. With this over, everyone would leave the table and the lady of the house would put the porridge into the oven with a ceremonial bow. Cooked porridge was taken out of the oven and examined carefully. If the pot was full and the porridge was thick and crisp, this meant that the coming year will be prosperous and the harvest will be abundant – that porridge was to be consumed in the morning. If the porridge would boil out of the pot, or was pale and meager, and the pot cracked, this boded no good to the masters of the house, and people awaited disasters, while the porridge was thrown away.

On the contrary, the tradition to make dumplings containing a surprise inside for the old-style New Year only appeared recently – no one can really tell when and where it originated but it was gladly welcomed in many homes across Russia. In some places this tradition is observed in almost every household and the code is to spend time making dumplings altogether, with friends or relatives, and then a merry feast is held where these dumplings are consumed, with everyone hoping they happen to come across the surprise. This sportive fortune-telling is particularly loved by children. Some people even bring dumplings they have made at home to their workplace to have fun with their colleagues and fellow workers.

And now speaking of the New Year celebrations, we simply cannot omit those universally adored characters that are invariably associated with it. We are talking of Ded Moroz and Snegurochka, of course!

Ded Moroz (Morozko)

© RIA Novosti, Sergei Kompaniychenko
Ded Moroz at his residence in Velikiy Ustyug
Ded Moroz at his residence in Velikiy Ustyug

Ded Moroz (Grandpa Frost), a truly Russian character, is often identified with the Western Santa Claus. The truth is, however, that Ded Moroz has just as much in common with Santa Claus as, for example, the Ostankino Tower in Moscow has with the Eiffel Tower in Paris.

Whereas the figure of Santa Claus is believed to be primarily inspired by Saint Nicholas – who was incidentally quite a real historical character, Ded Moroz (Morozko) is a mighty pagan god of the Eastern Slavs. This character comes out of legends and myths, symbolising Russian winter frosts – a blacksmith who binds water into ice, generously covering the winterly nature with silvery snow, bringing the joy of winter celebrations, and, should the need arise, defend Russians in a year of woe from advancing enemies by bringing never-yet-seen winter cold, freezing all living beings into ice and breaking iron.

Frost as a natural element had been personified by Eastern Slavs since the old days. A cold snowy winter with hard frosts was associated by peasant farmers with rich harvest on the following summer. The harbinger of this was the coming of harsh Christmas or mid-January frosts. That is why the Christmastide was the time for “calling for frost”: it was invited for a ritual meal. Food for the frost was left on window-sills and on the porch. Along with that, frost was also asked not to come in summer to kill the harvest.

RS Reference: Svyatki (Christmastide) — the twelve days following the Christmas Day and preceding the Epiphany (the Baptism of Christ).

The present-day Ded Moroz character began to emerge in 1840 when the publication of а story-book entitled “Grandpa Iriney’s Stories” by Vladimir Odoyevsky. Among the fairy tales found in it was one entitled “Moroz Ivanovich”. This was the first time the folklore and cultic Frost-Moroz featured in literature. Still, the image created by Odoyevsky was yet far from the New Year character known today.

Ded Moroz has about as much in common with Santa Claus as, for example, the Ostankino Tower in Moscow has with the Eiffel Tower in Paris

So what does this impressively large, stately bogatyr look like?

  • He’s got long, thick hair and a beard, silvery and fluffy, like snow – they are a symbol of his powers, prosperity and wealth;
  • Always wearing a long fur-coat lined with thick fur. This is quite understandable, isn’t it – you can’t do without it in the midst of a bitterly cold winter! His fur-trimmed coat was almost always white, it was only in the Soviet times that this was replaced by the “revolutionary” red;
  • His hat is of a semi-oval shape, the kind Russian boyars used to wear;
  • Felt boots, of course! The famous valenki! It is, after all, 40 0C below outside! But once inside, Ded Moroz may well change into white winter boots embroidered with silver smile;
  • The magic twisted cut-glass staff;
  • The sack with gifts. Many children believe that it is bottomless. Ded Moroz never lets anyone near his sack taking out all gifts himself. He never looks into it but always guesses straight away which present is expected by each and every child – but little wonder it is! He is a real wizard, after all!!

Ded Moroz travels across the vast icy spaces on foot or in a three-horse sleigh. Or, else, he travels in some mysterious way of which we are not to know anything. No one really knows how he gets into the house, but everyone can see that he HAS BEEN HERE...

Ded Moroz leads a healthy lifestyle – he does not smoke a pipe, nor does he wear glasses smile.

© RIA Novosti, Oleg Lastochkin
Christmas divination
Christmas divination

Just as is due to any Slavic god, Ded Moroz is severe but fair. Despite his enormous powers of freezing every mouse and man on earth, he, nevertheless, embodies all warmth of the ancient pagan Slavic soul, and can only be compared to the warmth of the sun.

It is hard to say for sure where the Russian Ded Moroz lives, as the legends are many and all disagree on this account. What is for sure is that he lives somewhere in the Far North where winter reigns the year round.

In our day and age Ded Moroz has, however, found permanent “residence” in the ancient town of Velikiy Ustyug in the Russian North (Vologda region). The point is that since 1998 the state tourism project “Velikiy Ustyug – the homeland of Ded Moroz” is underway there. Further still, the framework of the project now includes, since 2005, the celebration of Ded Moroz’s official birthday: November 18, - this is the day when, as scientists claim, the vast part of the country’s territory is already covered with permanent snow and first mighty frosts come.

You may be free to think whatever you like of it, but what is beyond all doubt is that visiting the abode of the real (!) Ded Moroz and getting the long-desired present from him is a universal dream of every child! And isn’t it just wonderful that children have now been given such a marvellous opportunity to have exactly that. And if one cannot travel to meet Ded Moroz, they can simply right a letter to him and send it to a very simple address “Russia. Velikiy Ustyug. For Ded Moroz”. And Ded Moroz, - a hard worker that he is, – will by all means respond and fulfil your wish smile!


Snegurochka in Sokolniki Park
Icy artwork of Snegurochka
in Sokolniki Park, Moscow

Snegurochka (Snegurka) is a unique and truly Russian character. None of Ded Moroz’s foreign counterparts can boast of having such a nice companion.

The image of Snegurochka is a symbol of frozen waters. She is an ever-young and beaming girl dressed in white garments.

The origins of Snegurochka go back to the pre-Christian Slavic mythology.

A custom went in the northern regions of the pagan Rus to make idols of snow and ice. And the legends and lore of those times contained quite a few mentions of an ice girl suddenly coming alive

Still, strictly speaking, Snegurochka, as we know her today, is a literary character. In 1873 the great Russia playwright Alexei Ostrovsky wrote a play entitled “Snegurochka” in which Snegurochka was presented as the daughter of Ded Moroz and Vesna-Krasna who perished during the summer ritual worship of Jarilo, the god of the sun. Later on Snegurochka was transformed by writers and poets into Ded Moroz’ granddaughter.

© RIA Novosti, Lev Ivanov
Reproduction of Palekh lacquer miniature ‘Snegurochka’, artist Kaleria Kukulieva

The enchanting story about Snegurochka was met with delight by many. The famous patron of the arts Savva Mamontov decided to stage it on the domestic scene. The play opened on January 6, 1882. The sketches of costumes for her were made by the artist Viktor Vasnetsov and three years later the famous artist made new sketches, this time for the eponymous opera by Nikolai Rimzsky-Korsakov. Two other famous artists - Mikhail Vrubel and Nikolai Roerich – had also done their bit as far as creation of the image of Snegurochka is concerned.

The Russian fairylore Snegurochka is an amazingly positive and gentle character. Nowhere across the Russian folklore can you find even a hint at some evil feature in Snegurochka. On the contrary, in Russian fairy tales Snegurochka is a character symbolising purity and kindness, who finds herself amidst adverse circumstances and misfortunes. Even in suffering, even in the midst of adversities the fairytale Snegurochka does not show a single negative trait.

The fairy tale about Snegurochka brought into life by the powers of folk imagination is a unique phenomenon in the global fairy-lore treasury. The Snegurochka fairy tale has not got a single negative trait! This is something totally unheard of for any other Russian folk tale, or for any fairy tale hailing from anywhere else in the world!


Winter transforms the world with its frosty breath. Everything around begins to look like a scene from a fairy tale: fluffy snow is falling, the earth is sleeping under the blanket of winter is shining in the sun...

And this is when the New Year comes, bringing with it new hopes, new expectations, and – invariably – belief in miracles!

Miracles happen only to those who believe. Do not lose faith in miracles!