Humans’ attempts to improve themselves go back for centuries. The ancient Babylonians made promises to their gods to repay their debts at the beginning of each year. Medieval knights took vows to re-affirm their commitment to chivalry at the end of Christmas, and we make New Year’s resolutions. Well, “we” doesn’t actually include me. I don’t make New Year’s resolutions. For one thing, I believe that they’re grossly overrated. Do you know what the success rate of New Year’s resolutions is? Less than 20%! Also, you have to remember to make them–which isn’t easy during the excitement of a shopping season–and then you have to remember to follow up on them, as if the thing you’re testing is your memory.
In any case, I’m still influenced by the customs of my mother country, Russia, where people don’t make resolutions–they make good wishes. What’s the difference? Wishing is a humble thing to do, while declaring that you’ll live differently next year is rather presumptuous. First of all, it assumes that you have control over your life–something we’d never assume. Why would we? We’ve lived through revolutions, wars, perestroikas and Mr. Putin. No, scratch my last statement. Russia still has Mr. Putin!
Anyway, despite my aversion to New Year’s resolutions, I have a warm place in my heart for New Year’s. It is a centerpiece for Russian celebrations, and many attributes of the American Christmas somehow migrated into our culture to make New Year’s festive: a fir tree, a red star and a bearded man with presents. Of course, in our country these symbols lost their religious meaning. The fir tree no longer evokes the Christian faith, but symbolizes New Year’s. The star on top does not recall Bethlehem, but the Soviet Revolution, and Santa Claus became Ded Moroz (Father Frost), although unlike Santa, he comes with his granddaughter Snegurochka–a pretty woman in a sparkling blue coat and a pointed kokoshnik (a traditional woman’s headdress).
Also like Christmas, New Year’s is the best holiday for children, and it’s celebrated with sweets, presents and New Year’s plays. The latter take place in theaters, concert halls and open-air amphitheaters. Their usual scenario is this:
Ded Moroz and Snegurochka are traveling from the North Pole to our cities and towns. They are in a hurry–the kids need their presents and, more importantly, Ded Moroz and Snegurochka must light the yelkas (fir trees), entwined by strings of unlit bulbs. If they are late, the new year will never come, and although no child knows what that would mean, everybody understands this would be a catastrophe. As the show progresses, Ded Moroz and Snegurochka get separated, and both of them face countless obstacles and Russian folktale villains. The story is breathtaking and suspenseful. Will Ded Moroz and Snegurochka find each other? Will they deliver the presents? Will they light the yelka on time?
My most memorable New Year’s performance took place when I was five, and my grandfather took me for a walk to the nearest park. It was a clear winter day. Snow-dusted trees, benches and ice-cream kiosks sparkled under the frigid northern sun, and small snowy waterfalls streamed down the stately pine trees. Yet the reason we went there wasn’t the beautiful scenery, but a beer stall located in the middle of the park and well attended by rowdy men even in the winter. Actually, Grandpa didn’t plan to take me there; he left me in a small playground next to the stall, where children made snowmen, built snow fortresses or had snowball fights.
Unfortunately, he paid no attention to the fact that that day the playground was sparsely populated. Many children had moved to an amphitheater nearby, which was decorated with tinsel and a large fir tree. I soon headed there, too, just in time for the winter play to begin. Never having seen a live play before, I was so fascinated that, after it was over, I, unnoticed by my grandfather, followed the actors to another amphitheater (there were several in the park), and kept following them around for, possibly, several hours–never getting bored with the repetition and never thinking about my grandfather.
When the last performance ended, the sun was setting and blue shadows spread on the snowy ground. Children and their parents began leaving, and I finally realized that my grandfather was no longer nearby. This was scary by itself, but to make matters worse, I suddenly felt freezing cold. Tears began rolling down my cheeks, and a lump in my throat sent a shock of panic down to my weakening legs. I was alone in the darkening park with no hope of finding my grandfather and nobody around to help me.
Yet a New Year’s tale always ends well. A passer-by who heard an announcement about a lost 5-year-old girl over the park’s loud speakers took pity on me and delivered me to the park’s entrance–all the while reprimanding me for hanging around the park alone and telling me that my grandfather would “wanna teach you a lesson!”
In truth, the only thing my anxious grandfather, who by that time had lost all of his beer-induced happiness, told me was: “Don’t tell anybody. Especially your grandma!” I accepted only too willingly, for that meant that nobody would punish me for my misbehavior.
That was a long time ago, and yet, every time New Year’s comes around, I recall that winter day in the park. Oh, what the heck, maybe I’ll make a New Year’s resolution this time around, too. A very small one–to be a better person. How hard could that be?