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I immigrated to the United States 20 years ago. I still miss the Soviet holidays.

I want to buy all the ornaments in the store. A whole wall of Maisons du Monde, a home decor shop on the outskirts of Madrid, is stocked with elaborate snowflakes, balls that say "Merry Christmas," and statuettes of animals that range from reindeer to owls to polar bears. Arranged by color from silver to gold to red to green and framed by tinsels of corresponding shades, they sparkle in the halogen light.

I want to grab a shopping basket, fill it to the top with three colors of everything, and bring them home.

But I cannot. These things are not welcome in my house.


I grew up in the 1970s, in the USSR, the only child of two Soviet engineers. We lived in a two-room apartment on the outskirts of Moscow only a 15-minute walk away from a similar two-room apartment, this one belonging to my grandparents. While the adults worked to build the great socialist paradise promised by the Communist Party, I attended a state-run kindergarten where a typical lunch consisted of mashed potatoes with herring, where bad-tempered teachers were commonplace, and where we learned, through songs and poetry, that our Soviet childhood was the happiest childhood on Earth. At no other time was this truth so evident as during the last few days of December.

Every year, sometime around December 27, my grandfather brought home a fir he'd scouted in one of many tree markets that appeared in the city in the second part of December. He filled a bucket with water, put it atop a small coffee table — the tree was never big enough to stand on the floor — €”and secured it with rope. He then climbed a small ladder, reached into the storage space under the ceiling, and took out boxes full of ornaments: fairy-tale characters, painted pine cones, pears, and carrots, decorated kerosene lamps, and space shuttles with the CCCP insignia — all made in either the Soviet Union or the friendly Warsaw Pact states, and collected ever since Stalin designated "the New Year's tree" a Soviet tradition in 1935.

Once the tree was up, its piney smell dominating the living room and its prickly, imperfect branches shedding needles even on the first day, I knew the New Year season had arrived at our house.


ded moroz & snow princess

Ded Moroz and Snegurochka. (Roman Makhmutov/Getty Images)

Along with May 9, the day when the Soviet Union celebrated its victory over the Nazis, New Year's Eve was our biggest holiday. A glimmer in the midst of an otherwise dark winter and bleak existence, it brought a promise of something special: gifts, clementines, black caviar, and smoked fish. The country's mood, normally grim, turned festive. Muscovites never known for warmth smiled and wished each other a happy upcoming New Year. And every home had a novogodnyaya yolka, the New Year's tree.

The yolka came to Russia in the beginning of the 19th century. Introduced by the Prussian princess turned Russian Empress Alexandra Feodorovna to the court of Czar Nicholas I, this alien German tradition soon became part of the Russian Orthodox Christmas celebrations. When in 1917 the October Revolution deposed the czar and the church, the tree remained. In the new, religion-averse regime it was now a New Year's tree. Vladimir Lenin himself even participated in the festivities, an image of him holding a book and giving gifts to children with a yolka in the background forever preserved in numerous Soviet paintings.

Following Lenin's death in 1924, the tree fell out of favor, labeled an anti-Soviet influence and a "remnant of the damned past" by a new generation of leaders. Then a member of Stalin's inner circle suggested resurrecting the tradition "for the children," and Stalin agreed, restoring the tree as the central feature of the Soviet New Year's celebration.

After that, the New Year's tree graced every Palace of Pioneers, every kindergarten, and every home in the Soviet Union. From the first moment I was old enough to place an ornament on a branch without dropping it, each year I helped my grandparents decorate the yolka. First we put on the ornaments, then the lights, and then my grandfather affixed the Kremlin-like ruby star to the top of the tree. I used wads of cotton my grandmother brought from the clinic where she worked to line the table under the tree and to cover the bucket. Cotton represented the snow, and I threw small bits of it all over the branches.

Finally, we placed plastic figurines of Ded Moroz, Grandfather Frost, and his granddaughter Snegurochka, the Snow Maiden, at their place of honor beneath the tree.


Ded Moroz 1850

Ded Moroz, from an 1885 costume design sketch. (Heritage Images/ Getty Images)

On December 31, the whole family gathered together to bid farewell to the old year. We dressed in our best clothes and prepared an elaborate meal: roast duck stuffed with apples, a dish my grandmother made only once per year. We drank cognac and vodka and watched Irony of Fate, a Soviet-era classic film whose plot revolved around New Year's Eve. Though we saw it year after year, it made us laugh every time. We spent the night, tree lights in the background, sharing our hopes and dreams for the new year.

And then around 11 o'clock, Ded Moroz appeared. He rang the doorbell, and I rushed to open it, mesmerized by the man who would be on the other side: his long robe, his tall walking stick, and the large sack of gifts he carried over his shoulder. For years, I didn't notice that my grandfather always disappeared just before Ded Moroz arrived.

I did eventually, of course. On New Year's Eve 1975, I opened the door and looked down. "Ded Moroz is wearing Dedushka's slippers," I exclaimed. Everyone laughed. His secret was out. Yet he continued to dress as Grandfather Frost for the next few years. This was our New Year's ritual — from decorating the tree to welcoming Ded Moroz to clinking champagne glasses when the Kremlin clock struck midnight to sneaking onto the roof of our building aided by a neighbor, an elevator technician with the right keys, to watch the fireworks over Moscow.


We left the Soviet Union several weeks before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Tired of anti-Semitic bigotry unleashed by Gorbachev's glasnost, and convinced by years of institutionalized anti-Semitism that Jews would always be second-class citizens in Russia, I persuaded my family to join the 1989 wave of Jewish immigration to the United States. I was 20 when I said farewell to Moscow forever.

On arrival to the US we continued to celebrate New Year's Eve, although it no longer felt the same. There was no more apple-stuffed duck — my grandmother died 10 days before we left. Without Russian television stations, there was no more Irony of Fate. Worst of all: There was no more tree. In America the tree wasn't a novogodnyaya yolka. It was a Christmas tree, and we were Jewish.

As immigrant Soviet Jews my family knew little about Judaism, religion being both the opiate of the people and the practice "reserved for the wretched." Our passports said we were Jews, but our religious knowledge ended at witnessing my grandfather scour Moscow for Passover matzo. My grandparents' generation was the last to link our Jewishness with faith. My parents and I simply knew it as a line in our documents that made us the target of Russia's oldest animosity.

Our first experience with Judaism took place en route to the United States, at a Passover Seder in Italy. Ladispoli, a suburb of Rome, was where the Hebrew Immigration Aid Society processed Jewish immigrants from USSR, and where Chabad-Lubavitch, familiar with religious deficiency of Soviet Jews, sent a rabbi to educate the illiterate. In truth, most of us went to that Seder for the free dinner. Sitting at long tables, our stomachs rumbling with hunger, we half-listened to the rabbi and half-devised how to sneak some matzo. When 45 minutes into the Seder no food was forthcoming, eggs began to disappear off the table, and the sound of them being cracked competed with the rabbi's voice.

But by the time we reached the Unites States, we wanted to learn how to be Jewish. Welcomed and resettled by the Jewish community of a conservative congregation in Nashua, New Hampshire, we felt that in order to assimilate fully, we needed to bolster our birthright claim to Judaism with actual religious knowledge. We went to the synagogue, participated in services, and tried to understand the liturgy. But making room for religion in our atheist minds proved difficult. It was easier to fit in by abandoning the most visible markers of our difference, by giving up the traditions and habits that were not "Jewish" in America. For me, the New Year's tree was one of those habits.

At first I didn't mind. I dated and later married an American Jew who grew up as part of the conservative movement. He taught me Hanukkah, and we lit the candles together. Although the religious underpinnings of the holiday were still foreign to me, I began to feel more fully Jewish. Ardent about my new identity, I often joined my husband in judging my parents, who bought a small artificial tree and decorated it as if we were still living in Moscow.

"You are Jewish," I said to them. "How could you do this?" After a few years they, too, gave it up. We still exchanged gifts on New Year's Eve, a delight for my daughter, who got them for Hanukkah too, but nobody dressed up anymore. We didn't cook a huge meal. And we went to bed early.

Putin and Ded Moroz

The Ded Moroz tradition continues today with President Vladimir Putin. (Micah Japaridze/Getty Images)

In 2005 my husband's job took him to Russia. Sixteen years after my departure, I came back to a country I barely recognized. Russian-made cars were in the minority, the supermarkets reminded me of their Western counterparts, and television shows cloned those I'd seen in the US. Yet the New Year's Eve celebration had survived all these changes. When, in December, fir tree markets appeared all over St Petersburg, I convinced my husband to get one. My daughter had turned 5 that year, and I wanted her to experience the New Year's Eve I grew up with.

"It's not a Christmas tree," I said. "It's a New Year's tree."

"No, it's not," he said. "It's a Christmas tree to me."

I offered a compromise: "We'll buy it after December 25."

Another hour of discussion later he agreed. We bought our yolka on December 27, and together with my daughter I decorated it with ornaments we purchased at a supermarket. My husband kept his participation to a minimum — he put on a cone-shaped topper. On December 31 at 11 o'clock, the doorbell rang. It had taken me a few days, but I'd found a service that arranged home visits by Ded Moroz and Snegurochka on New Years Eve.

My daughter's eyes opened wide. There was Grandfather Frost in his long frock, holding a staff and a sack of gifts I'd provided. With him was Snow Maiden, her blue gown complemented with white fur and a tall, elaborately carved crown. They smiled at my daughter from the doorway. Leading her and her friends in a roundelay later, they sang songs about New Year's trees and shared stories of their travels. Then they gave out the gifts and left.

My daughter didn't sleep that night. Neither did I. Turned out I'd missed my New Year's tree more than I realized.

That year, two people in the family were diagnosed with cancer.

"You see," my husband said. "We should have never gotten that tree. Jews don't put up Christmas trees."


At Maisons du Monde, still standing in front of the ornament display, I feel a hand on my shoulder.

"We should get going," my husband says.

I nod.

"I'd really love to have a tree," I say.

He pauses.

"Remember what happened when we had one?" he asks. "It's not right."

I think about it for a moment. What's not right, I decide, is his suggestion of comeuppance.

"What happened that year had nothing to do with the tree," I say. "I've been Jewish my entire, life and I celebrated the first 20 New Years of it with a tree. It reminds me of my grandparents, of my childhood. It's part of who I am."

He shrugs.

We walk out of the store. I realize I won't be getting a tree this year. Or the next year. Or ever.

Not because my husband would disapprove, but because the tradition is mine, not his. Because for him a fir tree in December is a Christian ritual, and engaging with it would designate him a bad Jew.

And because for me the essence of the novogodnyaya yolka is lost if I decorate it alone.

Margarita Gokun Silver is a writer and an artist living in Madrid, Spain. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal. Follow her on Twitter.


First Person is Vox's home for compelling, provocative narrative essays. Do you have a story to share? Read our submission guidelines, and pitch us at firstperson@vox.com.

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