Soviet celebrations: Tangerines, New Year trees and Olivier salad

December 31, 2020

New Year celebrations are actually a relatively new thing. It was Emperor Peter the Great who demanded that all the people of Russia be merry and eat every 1 January. However, following the October 1917 Revolution, the Bolsheviks decided that New Year and Christmas celebrations were a vestige of the bourgeois era. Then in December 1935, everything changed, when the newspaper Pravda carried an article by Pavel Postyshev, a Communist Party leader, who suggested that New Year parties be organised for Soviet children. So, celebrations quickly took off once again.

Military historian and head at Moscow’s Main Archive Directorate, Mikhail Morukov, discusses Soviet-era New Year celebrations in the city, their invariable symbols and also traditions. Discover more about decorations and food that were popular 70, 60 and 50 years ago.

Life is merrier

Initially, the Soviet authorities perceived New Year celebrations as a festivity for children. However, during the late 1930s, people of all ages also started celebrating. 

“The early 1930s proved to be far from easy. The New Economic Policy was gradually abolished, followed by collectivisation, industrialisation and the great famine of the year 1933.  Soviet people had to work hard. Due to the 2nd Five-Year Economic Plan’s successes, the Soviet Union joined the ranks of leading European countries and became a major industrial power. The main national economic indicators started growing, and it became necessary to allow the people to take a break. New Year celebrations became a wonderful opportunity for people not to have to work so much. Soviet leaders wanted them to believe that their living standards really had improved,” Mikhail Morukov explained.

This time of year picked up momentum and so each December, city residents cut down numerous fir-trees on the outskirts of Moscow. In late 1937, members of the Moscow City Soviet (Council/City Hall) passed a resolution regulating fir-tree deliveries and sales in the city. The authorities also started allotting plots of land where felling trees was permitted. Even in 1941, Moscow received 100,000 Christmas trees, despite the ongoing war.

New Year tree marketplace on Arbatskaya Square. Photo by Sholomovich, December 1956. Moscow’s Main Archives

Keeping up the team spirit

In the 1930s, it was decided to organise the first New Year performances  

for children. However, it was impossible just to go and buy a ticket for them.

“Schools and kindergartens selected a preset number of their children to attend higher-level New Year celebrations in the House of Trade Unions and the Kremlin. This was done by submitting their lists to district-level people’s education departments. Only the best of the best were allowed to attend. If lucky enough to be chosen, this was like a dream come true for the youngsters. Corporate workers had their own quotas allowing their children to take part. All the other tickets were distributed among excellent pupils in various city districts under a territorial basis. Of course, there were some people who always misused their official status, but their number was negligible,” Mr Morukov said.

Adults also celebrated New Year together. Initially, this was not considered a family festivity, as it is today. It was not unusual for, Soviet citizens to celebrate New Year with their coworkers, especially if 31 December fell on a working day. Many enterprises had their own clubs, canteens, cafeteria and houses of culture where New Year celebrations could take place. Parties and concerts for members of the Soviet elite were organized in the Kremlin for several times.

Major public catering enterprises, restaurant and canteen trusts (syndicates) also prepared for the New Year. Unlike corporate public catering facilities, anyone could go and eat at city and railway station restaurants; there were no restrictions.

Many people rode downhill from Leninskiye Gory (Hills) whose slopes were sprinkled with water to form icy slides. Open-air New Year celebrations were also very popular.

Presents for all

The city was decorated prior to the grand occasion, and there were also street fairs and fir-tree markets. All the shops were told to sell New Year presents. Some years, the city authorities even allotted several hundred taxicabs and lorries for delivering congratulatory postcards and presents.

Recording studios offered to record congratulatory messages and to deliver the records to recipients. Radio stations congratulated people for hours on end. Anyone could greet and congratulate his or her friends. The delivery of New Year postcards was also a special tradition.

Advertisement in the 17 December 1957  edition of the newspaper Vechernyaya Moskva (Evening Moscow). Moscow’s Main Archives

“It became a good tradition to send postcards to relatives, colleagues and school friends by post. Nice-sounding and creative greetings became an improvised hobby. Many people even had collections of these greettings. In the 1990s, it became possible to buy and simply sign postcards with preprinted wording. Earlier postcards were quite different and often blank. It was considered polite to write something on them of one’s own and to choose some sincere phrases,” Mr Morukov added.

Sweet things were part of any New Year party. As a rule, children were given sweets, toys, young chemists’ sets and teaching aids from their relatives. Adults often received various accessories, cologne, perfumes, gloves, scarves and hankies. Sometimes, they would even get great luxuries like clocks and watches.

Lotteries offering cash prizes and consumer goods were another way of obtaining goodies. These lotteries became popular from the 1960s on. The people of Moscow took an active part in them.

Tangerines and champagne

Tangerines were considered one of the main New Year treats. Citrus fruits were a popular present to give in the Soviet Union because people could not usually find any fruit to buy  during the winter season.

“At first, citrus fruit was  only delivered to the schools and kindergartens , and it never surfaced in the shops. The southern republics delivered Abkhazian and other tangerines to Moscow which encouraged their production. In the 1950s and the 1960s, Abkhazia boasted a ramified tangerine industry. They were picked in late autumn around mid-November. Moscow traditionally maintained good economic ties with the Caucasus regions that even delivered flowers to the city in winter. City residents bought fresh cut flowers to decorate their flats,” Mr Morukov went on to say.

Salads, especially Olivier, became another traditional dish consumed on New Year’s Eve. They indicated hospitality and a taste for good food and contained some unaffordable ingredients. So chopped sausage replaced quail meat in traditional salad recipes, and pieces of cooked carrot and green peas substituted capers.

“The ‘bourgeois’ Olivier salad originated in Moscow before the revolution,  in the 19th century. Soviet housewives started preparing salads from 1939 when the first edition of the famous, Book on Tasty and Healthy Food, rolled  off the press.

These salads had meat and vegetables in them but the deliveries of such things had been  normalised by the mid-1950s. At that time, salads such as herring, colloquially known as herring under a fur coat, Olivier and Mimosa became part of our life,” Mr Morukov noted.

City residents liked to eat ice cream during the New Year celebrations and Champagne is another must-have. The production of Soviet sparkling wine started in the southern regions of the country before WWII. The Moscow Factory of Champagne Wines opened after 1945. Clinking glasses to the sound of the Kremlin chimes soon became a familiar tradition during the celebrations.

“Nobles alone drank champagne in the past. Sparkling wine was a sign of affluent and care-free dolce vita. However, the big city quickly changed the mentality of its population. Moscow has always been a city for newcomers. In the early 20th century, native Muscovites whose grandfathers and grandmothers had lived here accounted for less than ten percent of the city’s population. The new arrivals bit by bit became accustomed to urban culture and gradually created their own traditions. Champagne became one such tradition. From that moment on, proletarians could afford to partake of what princes alone were able to savour once upon a time. Champagne indicated that living standards had been elevated to a new level,” Mr Morukov explained.

Paper and home-made fir-trees

Every year, hundreds of thousands of fir-trees were delivered to the city and sold there. From the 1960s, enterprises started manufacturing artificial fir-trees that quickly became popular with city residents who wanted to buy something unusual for their flats.

The first artificial fir-trees were made out of cardboard. Each tree was decorated with toys, often made from pine-cones, cotton wool, fabrics and paper. Apart from traditional starlets and snowflakes, the New Year trees were decorated with the symbols of various decades, including Red Army soldiers, cosmonauts, tractors, rockets, ships, as well as icebreakers and polar bears symbolising Arctic expeditions.

Despite allusions to the legendary Star of Bethlehem, the stars on top of Soviet-era New Year trees looked like those on top of the Kremlin towers. It became fashionable to decorate a tree with a spire, after the construction of Stalin-era skyscrapers was launched in Moscow.

City residents preferred to join their coworkers during and following New Year celebrations. “It was customary to call on coworkers, friends and neighbours; this tradition was particularly widespread in the city’s outskirts,” Mr Morukov said.

In the 1980s, families with children could invite actors posing as Father Frost and Snow Maiden to visit them. Earlier, these characters only attended official festivities.

No excesses and ideology

Although 1 January became a day-off soon after the Great Patriotic War of 1941-1945, it was really only intended for children so that they could enjoy themselves. On 2 January, it was business as usual.

It simply was not the thing to do to go on celebrating for several days in a row. On the night of New Year, public transport ran later than usual, until 2 am. The majority of city residents had finished celebrating by that time, returned home, placed presents for their children under the New Year tree and were fast asleep.

The situation changed after television became widespread though and people in Moscow started going to bed later than usual and staying in home more ofgen.

Although Russia started celebrating New Year fairly recently, this quickly became a truly popular and favourite time.

“People organised their own New Year festivities and could celebrate their own way. On that day, Soviet people could let their hair down without any official orders. This holiday originates deep inside the soul and from the bottom of the heart, and this explains why New Year celebrations are so popular,” Mr Morukov noted in conclusion.


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