New Year: Beloved Holiday in Photographs and Greeting Cards of the 20th Century

Like a family album of black and white photographs, New Year’s Eve brings family members and friends together, and some of us surely will take a camera and ask our loved ones to pose against a Christmas tree and a wadded-up Father Frost, just like our great-grandparents did a hundred years ago.

The exhibition explores the sentimental realm of winter festivities, encompassing a wide variety of images — from winter landscapes, still lifes with Christmas decorations and party scenes to works that are quite different from the usual imagery associated with the beloved holiday.

The display consists of photographs, photo collages, family albums, various greeting cards — pre-revolutionary and Soviet ones, printed or made by artisans. The variety of styles, genres, and textures convey the essence of the holiday feeling, embodied in the warmest greeting — Happy New Year!

The phenomenon of this feeling, shared by people of different countries and generations, found expression in an endless string of borrowings, funny and charming alterations. For example, elegant ladies and gentlemen with empty gift boxes in hand, captured by an Austrian or German master on commission, became the characters of the European postcards that were sold in Russian cities in pre-revolutionary times. To print a greeting in Russian over a Western card was not a difficult task. Many years later, we still find postcards with a variety of European landscapes that would have been completely unrelated to the New Year were if not for the printed holiday greetings.

Old New Year cards, both European and Russian, would become of considerable value after the Revolution. The New Year's Eve celebration was banned until 1935, when it returned from disgrace as an ideologically-saturated holiday of joy and happiness in a Socialist state. The characters of the first Soviet New Year cards were sturdy skiers and figure skaters, less often dancing couples. And yet the image of a happy child remained the main mascot of the New Year in the USSR.

Bold collages, bringing together Father Frost, a bunch of balloons and some circus monkey, marked the work of Soviet artists in the ‘50s. In the ‘60s, the design changes significantly. The stillness of winter landscapes virtually replaces people. It is of interest that the photographic hit of the Soviet ‘70s, a fir branch next to a burning candle and a glass ball, reminiscences of one of the first Christmas ornaments — the famous Saxon glass ball of the 16th century.

New Year in Russia

In pre-Petrine Russia, Anno Mundi (years since the creation of the world, 5509 BC) was the reference point from which time was measured. The calendar year would begin on 1 March according to the Julian calendar, however in 1492, or 7000 AM, the Grand Prince of Moscow Ivan III gave orders to consider 1 September the beginning of the calendar year.

There are written records, dating back to the 17th century, of a ceremony called The Beginning of a New Year, which was held on 1 September in the presence of the tsar. The ceremony would begin with a procession from the Assumption Cathedral headed by the patriarch. Then, on a platform in front of the Archangel Cathedral, a liturgy would be performed, attended by all the ranks of the tsar’s court, from the boyars to the Streltsy (units of Russian firearm infantry). At the end of the ceremony, the patriarch and a representative of the boyars would congratulate the tsar on the beginning of a new year and all those present in the square would bow from their waists. The tsar would respond with a slight bow.

At the household level, the September New Year was not celebrated in pre-Petrine Russia. Instead, people celebrated Christmas, and the festivities would start ten days before Christmas Eve. This series of festivities — Svyatki — also included rituals dating back to pre-Christian, pagan times: caroling, burning a straw stack, and fortune-telling.

The ancient custom of decorating a tree for the holidays existed in many countries, including Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Vietnam, and Japan. Fir trees were decorated for the holiday in Holland and the German principalities of the 17th century. Impressed by his stay in these countries, Peter I issued a decree that prescribed to celebrate the New Year on 1 January and to use the Anno Domini dating system. The calendar was still Julian, as adopted by the majority of other orthodox nations. The Julian calendar was ten days behind the Gregorian calendar, adopted in Western Europe.

Peter I did not change the Julian calendar over to the Gregorian calendar partially since otherwise, the celebration of the New Year would fall on the Orthodox Lent, which proscribed abundant feasting. 

The same decree stated that for the celebration of 1 January 1700, fireworks events were to be organized, garlands were to be hung in the houses and on the streets, and evergreen branches (fir, pine, and juniper) were to be used for decoration.

Gradually, the decorated Christmas tree became the main element of New Year’s and Christmas celebrations, although it was found only at the royal court or in the homes of the nobility and was uncharacteristic for common people’s Christmas celebrations.

The popularization of the tree is associated with the reign of Nicholas I. Such celebrations reminded his wife, Alexandra Feodorovna, of her German homeland.  

In 1852, the first public Christmas tree for all was arranged at Ekaterinhof railway station, and by the early 20th century, such holidays entered into everyday life.

However, only people wealthy enough could organize such celebrations at the family level. It was relatively inexpensive, though, to buy Christmas cards with festive images and send them to loved ones.

The State Post Office began printing such cards in 1894, and a year later the permission to produce blank cards was extended to private printers and publishers. Such famous artists as L. Bakst, A. Benois, and others took part in the design of postal cards. 

After the Revolution, the Bolsheviks issued a decree on the transition to the Gregorian calendar. On 1 February 1918, Russia immediately jumped to 14 February.

When the church was separated from the state, Christmas and the New Year, celebrated as a long series of holidays, fell into disfavor. First, the production of holiday cards ceased, and in 1929, the New Year celebration was abolished altogether, making 1 January a regular workday.

In late December 1935, following a letter published in the Pravda newspaper by Pavel Postyshev, a major Communist Party figure, the Christmas tree was rehabilitated on the premise that earlier such holidays had been the entertainment for the rich but now they should be available to the children of the working class. The letter ended with an appeal,

«Komsomol members and pioneer workers should arrange parties for children on the New Year’s Eve. In schools, orphanages, pioneer palaces, children’s clubs, children’s cinemas, and theaters — everywhere there should be a party with a tree! There should not be a single collective farm, where the board, together with the Komsomol members, would not arrange a New Year’s Eve party for their children. The city councils, chairmen of district executive committees, village councils, and public education authorities must help arrange a New Year’s Eve party for the children of our great socialist motherland».

Since holding a children's party implied the presence of an organizer (an entertainer), the figure of Father Frost emerged in the scripts for such events. A similar character appeared at Christmas celebrations in pre-revolutionary times, having its roots in pagan mythology. At the main New Year’s party in the Kremlin, Father Frost was played by popular actors: in the 1960s, by Alexander Khvylya (who starred as Morozko in the film of the same name), then by Roman Filippov (who played the guest from Kolyma in The Diamond Arm and Nikola Pitersky in Gentlemen of Fortune). In 1937, Father Frost got a “granddaughter” Snegurochka; her name was borrowed from the heroine of a play by A. N. Ostrovsky, but the image itself was filled with purely positive content.

Children’s parties with a New Year tree became an integral part of Soviet life and were organized everywhere, even in the harsh conditions of the Great Patriotic War. The New Year was celebrated in Moscow, saved from the Nazis, and in the besieged Leningrad, and in the ruins of Stalingrad.

Later, when the Red Army moved with its liberation mission to the West, Soviet soldiers would send home trophy Christmas and New Year cards printed in Germany, Finland, and Denmark. 

Since the late 1940s, the Soviet Union began to print its own greeting cards as well, and would often use photographic, documentary images related to the New Year’s celebrations rather than drawings. 

By a decree dated 25 December 1947, 1 January was made a public holiday. 

Every year since 1954, the country’s main holiday tree, the Kremlin Christmas tree, has been illuminated. 

In 1991, Christmas Day (7 January), was declared a public holiday, and in 1993, 2 January was made a day off as well. In 2005, public holidays were extended to 5 January, and with Christmas Day added, bank holidays in Russia can extend until 10 January.

Historical Note by D. Mityurin

Looking today at the images of winter, snow-covered forest, ladies in elegant manteaus and their companions in heavy fur coats, Soviet Father Frosts and Snow Maidens, all these quite different characters of New Year cards, one can feel the ambiance of holiday magic, whisking one away to one's childhood for a while. Expectation of miracles, happiness, and reuniting with the loved ones — this is what all New Year cards are about. They reflect the unique ambiance that unites people all across the world on New Year's Eve.


Last updated on 19.01.2022

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