The history of things: The appearance and disappearance of New Year trees in Russian history

The history of things: The appearance and disappearance of New Year trees in Russian history
Photo: Photo by the Mayor and Moscow Government Press Service. Yevgeny Samarin
This is the story of a monarch who tried to show off in front of his neighbours, the first New Year tree decorations and how the five-pointed Star of Bethlehem came into being.

Today, The History of Things discusses old New Year tree decorations from the Museum of Moscow collection and the history of New Year gifts.

First New Year trees: From the streets to inside homes

The first New Year tree decorations appeared in the streets of Russian cities in 1699 after Tsar Peter the Great decreed that 1 January, rather than 1 September, would be the first day of the New Year. After urging the country to celebrate New Year in line with the European calendar, he saw to it that such celebrations meet the most stringent Western standards. His decree ordered nobles, as well as high-ranking priests and state officials, to set up certain decorations consisting of trees and pine and juniper branches on the city streets and in front of their mansions.

By the mid-19th century, the people of Russia had become accustomed to decorating New Year trees in their homes. Before that, even members of the nobility upheld ancient Russian Christmas traditions, including balls, receptions and masquerade parties. Pines were decorated on Christmas Eve at Russianised German households, for the most part.

In 1852, the first public New Year tree was installed at Yekaterinhof Railway Station in St Petersburg. This tradition quickly caught on, with New Year trees appearing at clubs for the nobility, army officers and merchants, at other places, theatres and elsewhere. Since the early 1850s, Moscow started hosting New Year celebrations at the City Nobility Club.

The first decorations: From vegetables to glass beads

New Year trees were initially decorated with nuts, sweets and even vegetables. Custom-made decorations, including paper garlands and Chinese lanterns, became popular in the second half of the 19th century. Only wealthy families could afford to buy glass decorations, mostly baubles, delivered from Europe. Quite often, members of various families made their own tree decorations out of wire, paper, cotton wool and starch. Teams of workers were later got together to help produce tree decorations. The first large commercial factory was established in Klin not far from Moscow, with glass-blowers making baubles and beads for every festive season.

In the late 1920s and the early 1930s, the country stopped making tree decorations because the Soviet authorities tried to crack down on Christmas celebrations as an alleged manifestation of religious bourgeois culture. A new calendar was introduced in late 1929, and some old holidays were abolished as a result. Therefore New Year and Christmas became ordinary working days. Although they were not officially banned, an active anti-religious campaign gradually ousted Christmas from the spotlight.

The holidays were reinstated in late December 1934, and 1 January got its bank-holiday status back by early 1937. New Year tree parties were organised all over the country, and local shops started selling ideologically safe tree decorations. Angels and various religious decorations gave way to cotton-wool cavalrymen from Semyon Budyonny’s First Cavalry Army, Young Pioneers, Red Guard soldiers, Young Communist League girls, glass pendants shaped like airships, parachutes and aircraft. The blue eight-pointed Star of Bethlehem on top of festive trees was replaced with the five-pointed red star and the pre-revolution Christmas Grandfather turned into the kindly Father Frost during morning performances for children.

The History of Things project discusses 19th century fast-food, the first Moscow cyclists and their habits, old dolls and other interesting items from the Museum of Moscow collection