Why You need At Least Three Cannons by Midnight.

If you lived in St Petersburg about 350 years ago, you would not be lining up to celebrate New Year with your loved ones.

In fact, you would have a miserable nine months to go before you could pop open the champagne and make a few well chosen resolutions.

Once upon a time, Russia celebrated New Year at a most sensible time of year: at the onset of Springtime. New growth, seeds to be sown, days getting lighter and longer. I always think Stravinsky’s Rite Of Spring: wild dangerous dances on the Steppes to aid  Madame Fertility on her promiscuous way.

It took a pope to steer the pagans in an entirely different direction. Ioann III decreed in 1492 that in fact September 1st was the most auspicious time to start New Year. And from then on, people got used to starting after Summer had passed and as the harvest came in.

And so it was for around two centuries.

But Russia had one ruler who was hell-bent on lining Russia up with the rest of the civilised world. Peter The Great, one of the best looking people to be no longer alive, him of the fiery eyes and dashing devil-may-care mien, changed the whole New Year thing forever.


On December 15th 1699, an edict went out through the great land of Russia. From 1700, declared the great Tsar Pyotr Alexeyevich, New Year would happen when the rest of the civilised world said it would happen: on January 1. He ordered the rich to decorate the streets with evergreenery, and the poor to make some small gesture with whatever fronds of green stuff they could stretch to.

At Midnight on 1st January 1700, Peter said, there would be fireworks in Red Square.

And not only that, he added with a flourish. Anything the West can do, the East can do better. In Red square, everyone would fire cannons. Householders were recommended to have little domestic cannons for the purpose, and to fire from their yards three times to celebrate the New Year.

Oh, to have been a fly on a very safe and out of the way wall, that day. For the very first time, a hitherto lacklustre date became thick with the exuberant stench of gunpowder, and the Russians partied like it was 1699. Plus one.

So, when the clock turns through those vital seconds, from 2014  into 2015, and you are tempted to grumble under your breath about over-excitable folks letting off fireworks for New Years, it would be meet to thank your lucky stars that your neighbours are not letting off cannons in honour of the occasion. I, for one, celebrate the absence of cannon fire and look forward to a long night’s sleep, and not having to share the bed with a large and terrified retriever who will not budge from the duvet until the 1812 overture outside subsides.

Happy New Year to you all.




26 thoughts on “Why You need At Least Three Cannons by Midnight.

  1. I did rather fancy the idea of having a cannon to put on the point of the island in the river at our last house in France….but the dogs would have been disgusted. Happy New Year to you and your family.

  2. Happy 2015!

    (And when you have a moment, would you explain what a domestic cannon is? I searched but found no answer. I mean, did Russians keep little cannons as a matter of course?)

    1. A domestic cannon is an obscure and very British piece of irony, Kathy, and (regrettably, for immediately I find I want one) does not exist. However accounts of that first New Years Eve 1700. I believe the edict was to shoot either from ‘little canons’ or guns in yards. This implies most households, divertingly, would have a little canon. Me, I would have just lain down flat and waited for New Year to pass.

  3. Every year my sister gets us Christmas Crackers that we break open on Christmas Day, terrifying the daylights out of Thurber, our family dog. The dogs in Russia must have been howling hard back in the day with canons firing left, right and center. Happy New Year, Kate!

    1. And to you, Virginia! Aw, poor Thurber….and of course, I never gave those poor Red Square dogs a thought. As for me: I spent the night muffled by a very large and terrified wolfish dog after a firecracker went off near our window.
      Needless to say, I shall not be investing in any cannons any time soon.

  4. This summer we visited a small farm with two cannons in front of their cellars, no one could tell us why. Perhaps you just gave me the answer? Loved your piece as always, shared with everyone at our new year’s breakfast, happy new year Kate!

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