It’s Christmas Eve and as we turn down our street, there is little evidence of any celebration. No lights or reindeer in anyone’s driveway, no glowing rainbow flashes of festive lights. Not even a snowman or snowflake decoration. We live in a predominantly Jewish suburb, and generally this suits our family just fine because we are in fact Jewish. Our daughters attend preschool at the conservative local temple and we light candles for Shabbat (almost) every Friday.
But, if you take a peek through the window of our house during this year’s holiday season you will spy a 6 ft. Douglas Fir ready to be decorated in splendor. There are ornaments sparkling and dancing in cellophane bags by the tree, patiently sitting and waiting…until December 26th. This when my husband will begrudgingly deem it acceptable to adorn a tree which he still believes to be a uniquely Christian pastime. This is also the first year I have managed to get him, a nice Jewish boy from Long Island to let me have my beloved “yolka”, otherwise known as the Russian New Year’s tree.
When we first got married I understood that having a tree up around Christmas-time might be offensive to my observant husband and his parents. I buried that little Russian girl who wrote letters to Dzed Moroz (Grandpa Frost, the Santa look-alike) asking for strawberry lip gloss under the tree and sucked it up. I guess I have a lot of Jewish guilt about not being Jewish enough when it comes to American Jewish traditions. My 4-year-old daughter knows the bracha for Shabbat better than I do. She prays before she eats cookies whereas I’ve been known to play the pregnancy card during Yom Kippor to skip services and eat cookies. I immigrated to the United States when I was three years old from old-school communist Russia with little to no religious upbringing. So, I have always acquiesced on the subject of having a Christmas tree doppelganger in the house to celebrate New Year’s Eve. Until, I started to feel like shell of myself.
You see, let me explain something about Russian Jews and their mysterious New Year’s Tree. In Russia under communism all religion was banned. The only holiday and opportunity for Russian people to be festive and jolly for the entire year was New Years. It didn’t matter if you were Christian, Jewish, or Muslim (you weren’t allowed to be anything other than Russian) because you still gathered with friends and family and decorated the yolka with ornaments, oranges, and figs. You placed your children underneath for annual pictures with vodka and champagne bottles. It was really the only time people felt they had some freedom. Were their religious and cultural identities stolen from them by the Communist Party? Yes, of course. Was it technically a forced holiday with customs that were likely remnants from pagan and Christian orthodoxy? Probably. But the average Russian citizen didn’t really feel this way or care. They adored the New Year.
When my grandparents left Russia as refugees in the 80s they were allowed two suitcases. Everything else they had to leave behind. They brought with them a small, artificial tree complete with shiny ornaments so that they could make sure to carry on the New Year tradition in America. I always thought that was bizarre as a child. Why would you pack a tree? And my grandfather’s response, “We thought you never know, they might not have trees where we end up. We wanted to make sure we’d have one on New Years.”
So, back to this year and the present. I was starting to feel like a shell of my Russian self, and I wanted my two daughters to know and appreciate their heritage. And part of their heritage comes from their mostly assimilated and yet somewhat displaced Russian Jewish mother. Still carrying this torch for the tree. There is something sorrowful, passionate, stubborn, conflicting and beautiful about Russian Jewish culture. And this year, they will get to experience all of this embodied in a majestic yolka which we will decorate while making blinis and caviar sandwiches.
Natasha Gross is an attorney who lives in a suburb of NYC. She has two children in preschool at Temple Beth Sholom in Roslyn, NY