"I don't know what to do about the New Year," one of my girlfriends complained to me back in mid-November. As the end of the year approached and plans remained uncertain, her whines got more dramatic.
My friend, who is single at the moment and can't afford to go on vacation, started sounding as if the end of the world was around the corner. "I didn't manage to make any exciting plans for this New Year,” she lamented. "I don't even know whom to celebrate New Year's Eve with. I feel like a loser."
Trying to console my otherwise very sunny and optimistic buddy, all I could do was to apologize that I couldn't keep her company this year as I had made my own plans long in advance (partly because I didn't want to be in the same situation). But I realized my fretting friend is far from alone. With this holiday being one the most popular ones in Russia, its anticipation brings many of us to the verge of a nervous breakdown.
According to common belief, what happens on New Year's Eve should somehow set the pattern for the rest of the year. Oddly enough, we, 21st century people, tend to believe this with all seriousness. So we fuss, stress and obsess not only about trying to conclude all the unfinished deals before the year ends (a hopelessly unrealistic pursuit) but about making magical or at least memorable things happen on New Year's Eve as well. What do to, what to wear, what to eat and, more important, whom to celebrate the date with - these become critical questions. As if Goddess Fortuna of some other celestial entities judged our worthiness and decided on our share of luck in the upcoming year based on our performance during that night alone. Add the Russians' curious fascination with the Chinese animal symbols sold and purchased at every corner at this time of the year — and we end up with a near-pagan mass hysteria.
My aunt Natasha, an avid cook and a very hospitable person, has been obsessing about the New Year’s menu and the proper Year of Rabbit-friendly entourage weeks in advance. She's a New Year party pro: the bash at her cozy apartment on the edge of Moscow usually runs from dusk on December 31st to dawn on January 1st and then turns into a week-long feast with binge eating and drinking where everyone's welcome. This year however, she warned she wouldn't have meat on the table (otherwise the fearful rabbit's spirit could be offended), so only fish as well as lots of green stuff — beans, herbs, salad would be served to please the grass-loving animal. Any many, many apples in addition to traditional mandarin fruits as it's one of the foods that rabbits have special weakness for. Aunt Natasha has also presented relatives and friends with toy rabbits of sorts — to ward off evil in the upcoming year. Finally, she insisted her guests should wear lots of white with metal accessories when they come over to the party as these materials are purportedly recommended to be worn on the New Year's eve this year to attract good fortune.
God bless my aunt Natasha and her big heart, but I get both touched and puzzled watching how we remain so taken over by these superstitions. Perhaps this is our way of seeking temporary refuge from the calamities of life. Traditions and rituals, psychologists say, have a deeply therapeutic effect - they protect us from the chaos and existential fears.
More so, the New Year-related customs are full of deep symbolic meaning. Ancient Romans who celebrated the New Year on the 1st of January just like we do now, used to honor Janus, the god of doors, gateways, endings and beginnings, sporting two faces, one looking back and another looking forward. Since then, the date has indeed stood for transition and hope — for the better. Hence the abundantly served tables, fireworks, costumes, gifts and decorations — all these are archaic allegorical means to part with the past, to welcome renewal and to express hopes that good things will happen in the year to come. Other holiday attributes like the tree, the toys, the star on top, even Father Frost, are also archetypical symbols dating back to pre-Christian times.
And while I find most of the New Year's customs rather sweet and really miss them when I happen to be abroad (like this year), I don't see why we should view New Year's Eve as the mirror for the 365 days to come. Why don't we just take it easy? It's a time to spend with close ones if we feel like it. It's also the time when most of us end up overeating and staying up really late. Some have a lot of fun; others have just a hangover afterwards. I've had quite different New Years: feeling lonely, disappointed, ecstatic, lovelorn, in tears, joyous, exhausted, drunk, homesick, going to bed early because of a fever, hopeful, fighting with my boyfriend or my parents... But nothing that happened on New Year's Eve has had ever had anything to do with what the rest of the year brought.
Besides, if we do stick to our cosmopolitan beliefs, according to the Chinese calendar, the real Year of Rabbit doesn't start until the beginning of February.
Russia has always been referred to as feminine and Russian women have been one of the most popular stereotypes of this nation, both positive and negative. But is this an all-male fantasy? Here is a hip, modern, professional and increasingly globalized Russian woman looking at the trends around her, both about her gender and the society at large. She talks and lets other women talk.
Svetlana Kolchik, 33, is deputy editor-in-chief of the Russian edition of Marie Claire magazine. She holds degrees from the Moscow State University Journalism Department and Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She has worked for Argumenty i Fakty weekly in Moscow and USA Today in Washington, D.C., and contributed to RussiaProfile.org, Russian editions of Vogue, Forbes and other publications.