By far the largest holiday celebrated in Russia is New Year on January 1st. While Christmas used to be a widely celebrated holiday with many festivities reminiscent of those found in the west, following the Bolsheviks’ rise to power and the newly instated state policy of atheism, religious celebrations associated with the holiday were strongly discouraged from 1917-1936. In 1935, many of Russia’s old Christmas traditions were co-opted for New Year’s celebrations. Now, for two weeks in January, Russians around the country stuff their bellies, exchange presents, dance, throw parties and—stay drunk. In my experience, no one can party quite like a Russian.
Unfortunately, I have never actually experienced a Russian New Year. I was technically in the country one New Year’s Eve during my Fulbright, after flying into Moscow following a trip home for Christmas. Not wanting to spend another 4 hours on a train back to Nizhny after 15 hours on a plane, I had booked a hotel in the center. You could tell massive celebrations were imminent, but I just stayed in my comfy hotel room. In general, the schedule of my trips home has always worked out in such a way that I miss the most popular Russian holiday, as well as the majority of American holidays, most notably Thanksgiving.
I’ve never been a huge fan of Thanksgiving. My favorite holiday growing up was my birthday (in my eyes, an international holiday), followed by Christmas and Valentine’s Day (yes, that is a holiday). I did look forward to Thanksgiving though, mostly because that meant traveling to Des Moines, Iowa, to visit my grandparents and extended family. The day after Thanksgiving was the best because it was officially the start of the Christmas season, and my grandpa would immediately begin hauling out my grandma’s four Christmas trees (the bride tree, the Santa tree, the red tree, and the regular Christmas tree). My grandma was one of the most enthusiastic holiday lovers I have ever met. Her dresser drawers were filled with tacky, wool Christmas sweaters and huge Christmas-themed earrings—plastic wreaths and porcelain Santas and colorful Christmas tree light bulbs (some actually had a battery in the back so that they would light up). Much of the day after Thanksgiving was spent carrying up boxes of Christmas ornaments and decorating dozens of trays of Christmas cookies. We always had a massive assortment of sprinkles, food coloring, frosting and tiny candies spread across the entire kitchen table. Each cousin (all five of us) always baked at least sixty cookies. What more could a lifelong sugar addict ask for? To this day, if there are cookies to be found, I will find them, and I will eat them.
My father’s favorite holiday, however, has always been Thanksgiving, and to be fair, Thanksgivings in Des Moines were quite the spectacle, the kind of stereotypical, old-fashioned American feast you read about or watch on television. The entire day was spent cooking two different kinds of cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, homemade stuffing, homemade gravy, a HUGE turkey, several pies, greenbean casserole, and potato salad. Because there were so many in attendance, we actually had name tags telling everyone where to sit. Once dinner was ready, the 13-15 of us would gather at our places along the long wooden table in the dining room, while there was not a free space to found on the tall server located to the left of the table. We would go around one by one, saying what we were thankful for, and then my grandpa would being carving. I remember one particular Thanksgiving when my grandma, motivated by her recent attempts to diet, decided to change her recipe for my favorite dish: the mashed potatoes. Taking the place of buttery and salty mashed goodness was gluten-free, low-fat mush. Needless to say, I wasn’t happy.
Since moving to Russia I have, rather accidentally or without much forethought, celebrated a few American holidays. The first time was when I was visiting St. Petersburg for the first time while studying abroad. My friend and I wandered along one of the main streets of bars in the city and stumbled upon a Halloween party—in November. Most of the clubgoers had white, painted faces, while the walls were decorated with fake cobwebs, plastic skeletons and images of pumpking. Periodically the DJ would flood the dance floor with white smoke. It was fun!
That same year was the first time I spent Thanksgiving in Moscow. My resident advisor invited all of the students over to his apartment for a home-cooked Thanksiving meal. We sat in his living room munching on turkey and potatoes, while I busied myself knitting an entrelac scarf for my friend Tatiana.
However, the best Russian Thanksgiving I’ve ever had was, of all places, in Nizhny Novgorod. I am almost postivite that, at that moment, I was one of just four Americans living in the entire city. Two of the other four were my fellow Fulbrighter, Patrick, and his wife, Miranda. Now, I don’t cook, but Miranda and Patrick are both from the South, the latter from North Carolina and the former from Alabama. That meant that not only did they know how to cook, but they also knew how to eat. They gladly agreed to host Thanksgiving dinner at their apartment. Our mutual friend and my boyfriend at the time was from Turkey (the irony is not lost on me), and he was very excited to celebrate his first, real, American Thanksgiving. Since I do bake, I attempted to bake my famous Dutch apple pie. That turned out to be a major disaster. It’s surprisingly difficult to find measuring cups in Russia, and I will NEVER get used to the metric system for cooking (or Celsius for that matter). That year was also the year I learned that Russian butter doesn’t have those incredibly convenient measurement lines we have in the US. It was also the year that I learned, unequivocably, that butter is not a replacement for shortening. In the end, I threw the dough out and bought a couple of cakes instead.
Miranda and Patrick lived in a huge apartment complex located outside the city’s center near a small enclave of houses. With their brick facades, rooftop chimneys, and front lawns, it was a cozy reminder of American suburbia. Patrick explained that at some point, developers had tried to buy out the houses in order to tear them down and make room for more profitable construction porojects, but the community had succesfully fought to save their houses in court. Their two-room apartment was old, but snug, full of mismatched furniture, giant, slightly scary looking stuffed animals, knick-knacks brought back from China, and various other trinkets left by previous foreign residents—most notably an eclectic selection of mugs and plates, including a set of “Princes Plates” featuring Disney’s Belle, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, and Ariel. With the recent, fresh snowfall, the view from outside the windows was downright picturesque.
In Nizhny, it’s pretty difficult to find anything but cabbage, eggplant, potatoes, and radishes for the majority of the year, so Patrick and Miranda had to get a bit…creative with the sides they made. They made some kind of dish with roasted eggplant I think and deviled eggs and some kind of stuffing made out of…something. They also served a Russian favorite—salami and cheese. But by far, the most delicious dish was the turkey. Turkey has never been my favorite; in fact, I often wonder how on earth it ever became the staple of the holiday. It never actually tastes that great. No matter what you do, it’s always dry and lacks any real flavor. And I am far from the only person who shares this sentiment. But Miranda’s turkey was mouthwatering. She coated it in a salt brine and then wrapped it in tin foil, placing it in the oven overnight—similarly to how you would cook a prime rib. It was juicy and rich in flavor. In other words, it was not your average turkey.
Once the food had been prepared, the four of us gathered on the couch in the living room to watch the annual Thanksgiving Day football game. Patrick had managed to find a website where he could stream it live and connected his laptop to the television via an HDMI cable. The quality was poor, but Patrick was thrilled to have the opportunity to teach Cem the rules of American football. Patrick and Miranda are avid football fans, so much so that the draft day for their fantasy football league might as well be an official holiday in their household.
We laughed, drank wine, had cookies and tea. We even somehow managed to get into an argument about whether or not you should enforce gender stereotypes on your children by purchasing them certain toys and clothes based on whether they are a boy or a girl (I stayed out of that argument. Patrick was really just trying to tease Miranda, but Cem took the matter very seriously.) It was a great Thanksgiving. More importantly, it was one of the first Thanksgivings when I genuinely wanted to give thanks, when I was fully cognizant of being thankful. That Thanksgiving I was truly thankful for the bonds you form and the connections you make in the most unexpected places. That day I was thankful because we had brought a little piece of America all the way to the regions of Russia.