New year and Novy God in Israel


I was asked a number of times by FB and IRL friends abroad whether there was any sign of Christmas or (Gregorian) New Year’s celebrations in Israel.

Now while there is a nontrivially large Christian community in Israel, the largest denominations (the Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem among the Arabs, and the Russian Orthodox Church among non-Jewish immigrants from the FSU) are both “Old Calendarist” — they use the Julian calendar for religious purposes. (I have blogged previously about how the ancient Roman calendar evolved via the Julian calendar to the Gregorian one that has literally been made an international standard through ISO 8601.) At present, the Julian calendar runs 13 days behind the Gregorian, so Russian Orthodox Christmas falls on January 7. The largest group in Israel to observe December 25 may well be foreign workers (typically in-house caregivers) from the Philippines, who tend to be either Roman Catholic or sometimes Protestant.

However, there is another celebration that one sees on January 1, particularly in cities with a large Russian community: Novy God. Because it often involves accouterments that have become associated with Christmas/Yuletide in the West (such as the red caps and decorated trees, as well as a Ded Moroz/”Father Frost” figure akin to Santa Claus), some Jewish Israelis actually mistake it for a Christmas celebration.

In fact, of course, Novy God (Новый Год) is simply Russian for “New Year”. Tsarist Russia had hung on to the Julian calendar for civil purposes as well: hence the “October Revolution” actually took place on (Gregorian) November 7, 1917. The new regime almost immediately switched to the Gregorian calendar (and skipped the dates February 1-13, 1918 to catch up). Religious celebrations of any kind quickly became suspect (both because of associations with the old regime and because the godless religion of communism does not suffer competitors). However, nostalgia for winter celebrations associated with Christmas remained, and many Russian yuletide traditions were informally transferred to the nearby January 1. This practice acquired some official sanction following a December 28, 1935 op-ed in the Pravda by a party functionary, and in 1947 Novy God was even made a national holiday. [*]

After the fall of communism, the celebration as a generic/nondenominational winter holiday continued—in Russia, the week from Novy God to Russian Orthodox Christmas is now a winter holiday week. In Israel, it is not unusual to see secular Jews of Russian origin mark Novy God, although Orthodox Jews of similar background tend to eschew the celebration, saying Jews already have a winter holiday of their own (Chanukah). There is also something surrealistic about holiday traditions involving snow and frost in Israel’s coastal plain (where one is lucky to see actual snow once in 50 years) — but the same of course applies to Christmas celebrations in the Southern Hemisphere…

Happy New Year! 2017 was the year of Kek, the Egyptian idol of chaos. Will 2018 tell 2017, “Hold my beer”? At any rate, may it be a year of joy, health, and fulfillment for you all. “Praise G-d! The old year is at an end.”

[*] As a footnote: the author of the “New Year trees” letter, Kiev party secretary Pavel Postyshev, is considered one of the architects of the Holodomor/”Harvest of Sorrow” in Ukraine. Hence, Ukrainian nationalists understandably want nothing to do with the celebration. Four years later, Postyshev himself fell prey to the Great Purges—one might see a measure of karmic justice in this.

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