The Communists introduced Communist holidays and declared all others null and void except New Year which was supposed to replace the bourgeois Christmas. But the Russians are a cunning lot and outwitted the powers-that-be by turning official holidays into intimate and private celebrations.
International Women’s Day (8 March) which marks women fighting for equal rights with men, was immediately interpreted as a sort of Mother’s Day on which not only mothers but every female, from babies to elderly ladies would be congratulated and offered gifts of all sorts but most often flowers. Since there was no St.Valentine’s Day, young lovers usurped this holiday, so on this one day in the year, all Russian women are loved by all Russian men – a truly remarkable event. (Lately St.Valentine’s Day has been introduced in this country with its Post of Love and Valentine Cards. A lot of numerous Valentine Cards are on sale now everywhere.)
The same thing happened with Army Day (23 February) which is the Russian equivalent of Father’s Day. Every man will be congratulated whether he is a father or not and this time it is young men who expect a small gift from their girlfriends. The Army doesn’t mind as the soldiers know that it’s the day they have the right to drink double their normal amount.
New Year’s Eve is utterly unlike the other holidays. To begin with, it is not quite clear what Russians celebrate. Before the Communist coup, the best festival of the year was Christmas. When the Communists crossed Christmas off the calendar, naturally the Christmas tree was off as well, both for religious and ecological reasons. But the sweet memories of the tree, the gifts, the warm atmosphere of the holiday were not to be annihilated so easily. In the course of time common sense prevailed, though in a somewhat distorted way. Christmas was definitely out as God had been cancelled, once and for all.
But the Christmas tree came back victorious, disguised as a New Year Tree. Everything was there, except, perhaps, the angels, replaced by Grandfather Frost and his granddaughter Snegurochka (the Snow Maiden). Everyone ignored the suspicious similarity between Grandfather Frost and St.Nicholas (alias Santa Claus). The Bethlehem Star on the tree top was now the Communist five-pointed star. Thus the only major change was the shift of the date from 7 January (Christmas Day for Orthodox Christmas) to the eve of 1 January. Any difficulty with this arrangement was easily overcome because you could always start the celebrations a week before the real date and go on till the real Christmas. (The Russians have 2 calendars – old style and new style – which gives them a unique opportunity to celebrate the same event twice and they make ample use of it: two Christmases, 2 New Years, 2 Easters.)
New Year’s Eve is without doubt the best holiday of the year, a genuine family celebration when people stay awake all night long or at any rate the larger part of it, drinking, dancing and watching dull television shows of the lowest possible taste (unless they happen to be among the young people who prefer to see in the New Year in the midst of a forest, gathered around a living tree and a bonfire).
Next in importance is Victory Day, 9 May, marking victory over Germany in 1945. Outside Russia few remember that during the 2 WW , though among those killed were some 357,000 British and 251,000 Americans, Russian losses approached 30 million. The day is celebrated by military parades, the biggest of which is in Moscow’s Red Square.
Two major Soviet holidays are still observed – May Day (1 May), the day of International Solidarity of Working People and the November Holiday (7-8 November) , the date of the Bolshevik coup in Petrograd (St.Petersburg) in 1917, proudly called the Great October Socialist Revolution. In Bolshevik times, both holidays were very grand affairs, with military demonstrations, general assemblies at absolutely every factory and school, however, small, and joyful marches of the happy citizens of the country of victorious socialism through the streets of their cities and towns, often soaked to the skin or bent against a snow-storm but still clinging to their posters and heavy portraits of the Communist leaders.
These days, on these 2 holidays, only a handful of staunch Communist supporters march along the streets early in the morning while the military sleep peacefully in their barracks. Both holidays have remained, for no-one, including fierce anti-Communists, is brave enough to cancel them altogether: the public would be furious. A holiday is a holiday, whatever the reason.
Now these are just seasonal holidays, the first is connected to spring and nature awakening and the second to crop gathering, May Day being perfect for planting the potatoes, while 7 November is good for autumn house-cleaning.