New Years in Russia is like Christmas and New Years combined. They don’t have a Christmas tree, they have a New Years tree and on New Years children are visited by Grandpa Frost and his niece Snegyrochka, who put presents under the tree when the kids aren’t looking. But if you are a bad boy or girl you get visited by Baba Yega (grandma Yega) who gives you coal or hits you. I forgot which. My students told me about how they used to write letters to Grandpa Frost, who lives in Northern Russia. For college students, New Years in celebrated little different.
I spent New Years at a deluxe sauna with about 10 Russian students. Saunas in Russia, or at least in Smolensk, typically are rented out to private groups for a period of time starting at 2 hours. Saunas consist of not just a sauna but also a small swimming pool, living room with couches, karaoke, sleeping space, bathroom, shower and sometimes a special bucket mounted on the wall used to dump freezing water on your head.
On New Years, everyone brought something to share. The food consisted of caviar, sausages, cheeses, shish kebabs, sushi rolls and a salad called “Olivie”, which was created during the Soviet times when Soviets would just mix everything they had in their refrigerator together. We drank vodka, champagne, beer and cognac mixed with juice or Pepsi. There were also pickles to eat after taking shots and pieces of bread to sniff on. Remarkably, sniffing bread after vodka shots is very effective. I introduced them to American culture by serving “jello shots”.
It was funny how during Putin’s New Years speech everyone was guessing what he was going to say before he said it and some of them came pretty close. Right before midnight we wrote down our New Years wishes on pieces of paper and then at midnight, while the bells on the Kremlin wall were striking, we burned the piece of paper and drank the ashes in a cup of champagne.
Later on we sang Russian classic songs like “Гоп-стор” and hit each other with sticks in the sauna. The trick is to get really hot and sweaty, then get beat with sticks and then jump in the cold pool or run outside and roll in the snow. Sounds strange but it feels great!
I enjoyed my New Years sauna experience so much I’ve been back 4 times already. Some saunas are open 24 hours so instead of going to the club after drinking like in the US, lots of Russians head to the sauna. Maybe I’ll open a chain of Russian restaurants and saunas in the future?