Celebrating the New Year's Eve in Belarus: The Russians are Coming

Traditionally, Belarusians celebrated Christmas as a part of Kaliady – a two week long pagan holiday of winter solstice. However, today most Belarusians celebrate New Year's Eve as their main winter holiday.

This tradition comes from Soviet times, when communists rejected the sacred sense of Christmas time. New Year's eve celebrations in post-Soviet lands remains closely linked to feasts of food, consumption of alcohol and fireworks.

Belarusian authorities organise most celebrations that take place in public places and enforce tough security measures. Many people are adverse to these conditions and prefer to stay at home, while others go abroad to celebrate the New Year, western style.

Meanwhile, thousands of foreign tourists come to Belarus for the holiday, most of them being Russian. Here, they escape from Moscow's hustle and bustle and enjoy lower prices, organic food and plenty of Soviet nostalgia.

Traditional Kaliady vs. the Soviet New Year

In Belarus, Orthodox believers celebrate Christmas on 7 January in accordance with the Julian calendar, whereas Catholics and Protestants celebrate Christmas on 25 December, using the Gregorian calendar. Traditionally, Belarusians celebrated Christmas over a two week stretch, a period traditionally called Kaliady, it is a fusion of the Christian holiday of Christmas and the pagan holiday of winter solstice.

The day before Christmas is called Kućcia, from the name of the ritual barley dish. That evening, a family would have a certain number of other dishes on the table, all of them Lenten in character -- in other words, dishes without meat. When sitting at the table, the family's eldest member called upon the spirits of their family ancestors as well as the god of frost to join their celebration and give good favour to their household.

The most joyous aspect of Kaliady for kids was them taking to the streets for a loud, ruckus stroll around their town or village, wearing handmade costumes and masks, singing ritual songs, wishing the families health and a good harvest in the coming year. In return, they would ask for a gift of food, drink and/or money.

While the traditional Kaliady celebration exists in some villages even now and enthusiasts are trying to revive it in nation's cities, the Soviet tradition has made long inroads and its winter celebration is much more widespread. The Soviet atheist empire rejected any kind of sacred religious holidays and firmly entrenched New Year's Day at the centre of the year's festivities. As a result, today throughout the former Soviet Union New Year's Day plays the same role as Christmas in the west.

Happy residents and nervous authorities

As perhaps anywhere else during Christmas time, in Belarus people hurry to buy presents for their friends and relatives. Christmas tree markets pop up everywhere, and Belarusians often are greeted in public transportation, various shops and other organisations with well wishes from local authorities in the form of posters.

For Belarusians, an abundant, overflowing New Year's Eve table is a must. People tend to eat and drink a great deal, even excessively, and are prone to cooking a great number of dishes for the night's festivities. Among them one will find the omnipresent champagne, tangerines and Olivier salad which is made out of potatoes, eggs, mayonnaise and ham.

Before midnight, people watch the president’s New Year's address to the country and at midnight people drink champagne and set off fireworks. Most people start drinking long before midnight, and by midnight are already in quite a fine state. Others, who drink less actively, set off fireworks, give and receive presents and often go out on the town.

The ocal authorities usually set a large New Year's tree, which resembles a Christmas tree in many regards, in every district of the city for people to gather around after midnight. In Minsk alone there were 27 sites designated for the masses to celebrate the end of 2012.

There, state-organised performances usually take place, with Father Frost, a type of Soviet Santa Claus, and singers and dancers. However, it has become more difficult for people to celebrate outdoors, as security measures and police control has become rather burdensome in recent years.

After the terrorist act of 2011 the authorities became very nervous of any kind of event where a large group of people would be gathered. At all of the main sites, the police will place a turnstile in order enable them to check people one-by-one. Many of the more drunk citizens were prevented from joining the public celebrations and turned back by the police. For security reasons, only half-litre bottles of liquid are allowed. Animals are also prohibited from being brought in to the officially designated celebratory space.

Even during Christmas celebrations at churches, policemen have become a fixture. They control people's movement and even try to spread them throughout the interior of a church in order to prevent a stampede.  

These measures persuaded many that it is better to stay at home, as soberly walking through the turnstiles does not look like all that much fun on New Year's Eve. For many Belarusians, celebrating at home seems to be rather boring and after a large feast, they want to go out to meet their compatriots in welcoming in the new year.   

It becomes increasingly popular among Belarusians to celebrate the New Year abroad, especially in their  own neighbourhood: Poland, Ukraine, the Czech Republic or Lithuania. Here people find a different, more Western style of celebrating the New Year. Meanwhile, people from other countries, especially from Russia, prefer to celebrate the holiday in Belarus.

Russians Celebrate New Year in Belarus

This year, Minsk offers New Year's Day tours for foreigners for $440, with around a hundred different excursions made available. According to official information, ten thousand tourists will come to Minsk for organised tours, most of them Russians.

However, it is impossible to estimate the precise number of Russians that come to Belarus to celebrate New Year since border control and monitoring do not exist. However, as tourist agencies claim, all hotels, hostels and flats for short-term rental were full in Minsk at the end of December.

Meanwhile, the Russian ambassador to Belarus Aleksandr Surikov stated in an interview that over a million Russians would come to Belarus for this New Year's Eve. It remains unclear where Surikov got his hands on these numbers, but Belarus seems really attractive for Russians as a New Year's Eve destination, and not only its hotels but also vacation houses and even agro-tourism farms were flooded with Russians tourists.

Unlike tourists from the European Union and North America that need visas, Russian visitors benefit from visa-free travel to Belarus.  

They come to Belarus to try to escape from the New Year's Eve fuss of Russian megalopolises, and find low prices, better quality food, and a type of Soviet oasis with other more authentic traditions as well. “The Russians are astonished that we are not afraid to let our children out to play alone outside, everything is clean and groomed and the people are nice”, the owner of one agro-tourism farmhouse explains.

Vadzim Smok is the Ostrogorski Centre coordinator in Belarus and researcher at the Institute of Political Studies 'Political Sphere' based in Minsk and Vilnius.

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