The New Year’s Tree Saga
My wildly popular New Year’s resolution from last year prominently featured our New Year’s tree. The tradition, perhaps strange to Americans, has Soviet roots, and intersects with my family history. I took the opportunity of being home for the holidays to interview my parents. (Some of the quotations are cleaned up for clarity.)
Not to be confused with a Christmas tree, a New Year’s tree is a Soviet tradition where people decorate a tree for a holiday that is conveniently near Christmas.
Dad: “Christmas celebration was banned after the revolution and there was no Christmas tree or New Year’s tree until the mid-30s, when there was a reversal. Either Stalin or the government said, Why should the happiest children in the world, Soviet children, be denied what the children in the West have?”
I had assumed that the New Year’s tree was invented by the people and tacitly allowed by the government, but was not at all surprised that it was decreed from above.
As interesting as the start of the tradition is, I wanted to know about its suspension. Starting from my earliest memories we had a (cheap, artificial, but suitable) New Year’s tree with gifts under it. Then we stopped, and I had thought nothing of it—perhaps my brother and I grew too old. In fact, it was a deliberate and fraught decision. Around the time we moved from Brooklyn to Long Island, my parents were thinking about Jewishness, and arguing about how to impart it on their children. (As terrible as it was being raised by my parents, listening to Dad’s awful jokes, it’s a testament to their parenting skills that I didn’t know of any problems at the time.)
Dad: “Mom insisted on [stopping the tradition] when we [moved] because she wanted to send you to Hebrew school and she believed that if you went to Hebrew school and we had a tree you would be terribly confused and lose your Jewish identity.”
Mom: “I thought you would be confused because you would not take it as a New Year’s tree, but more as a Christmas tree.”
Dad was anti–Hebrew school, pro-tree, and Mom was pro-school, anti-tree. Neither wanted for me and my brother to be religious, and both wanted us to know that we are Jews and what that means. Jewish kids in the U.S.S.R. had the benefit of getting teased and beat up, but in the U.S. we needed Hebrew school to learn Jewish identity, Mom argued. They couldn’t properly teach us Judaism, Dad conceded, so we signed up at the reform temple—the one least likely to make us religious—and lost the tree, though not without Dad’s frequent protest, unknown to the the kids, on both the Hebrew school and tree fronts. “I probably did not bitch about it every year, but more than once.” (The Jewish identity story ends so: my brother and I had Bar Mitzvahs; the 4 of us are godless; and I have little sense of Jewish identity, which my parents, despite wanting me to have it, admit is a healthier attitude, attained through lack of antisemitism.)
Last year was the first New Year’s tree we ever had in our house, and when I asked why, Dad was surprised to look back on the last 13 years: “Was it the first?”
Mom: “There was nobody to be confused anymore; you were adults at that point. And we had a celebration at our house, so we wanted to have a more festive—”
Dad, still in disbelief: “We didn’t have a Christmas tree at all in Oceanside?”
Mom: “A New Year’s tree.”
Dad: “We never had a New Year’s tree in Oceanside?”
(All 3 of us called it a Christmas tree during the interview, so it’s not totally unreasonable to think it might confuse a child.)
Dad: “Mom, actually, was against trees, I think, from the very beginning—”
Mom: “I was the one who purchased it to begin with, for 5 bucks!”
Dad: “Right, right, because I wanted it. For 10 bucks.”
Last year’s tree comeback was neither a 5 nor $10 plastic tree, but a grand fir, which marked the start of a new family tradition.
Mom: “We noticed that some people who celebrate Christmas put up a Christmas tree quite early, and then the moment Christmas is over they get rid of it. So we thought the trees are still spectacularly good quality, why should we go try to look for a tree when it’s readily available, at the curb, in perfect condition—”
Mom: “We walked last year and found 3 Christmas trees; we just picked the most beautiful one.”
This year they found just one tree, large and nice, pre-tinseled. Blame the paucity on a December 26 search, earlier than last year.
In the end, there’s nothing religious about the tree, and I am glad to have it back.
Dad: “For me, it’s Winter.”
Mom: “It’s a nostalgic thing.”
1 comment on The New Year’s Tree Saga
1. irina says:
Very funny and touching story. Your writing skils are pretty good too, I guess, it runs in the family. I am going to send the story to a few of my American friends who are asking me every year to explain why we put up the tree.
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