God Rest Ye, Merry Muzhchini
by Olga Slobodkina-von Bromssen
Illustration by Sue Hunter
In these days of climate change, winters in Moscow can be anything you want them to be—below zero. They will come one by one to our internationally inspired, rapidly-changing metropolis and include not only the Western Christmas, as recognised all over the world, but also the Russian New Year.
The Western Christmas is celebrated, as is fairly well known, on December 25, but people start getting ready for it long before. This includes helping the poor while the rich go shopping. On Christmas Eve the good ones will go to church for the Watchnight Service and the rest will sit at home or in restaurants stuffing themselves with food and liquor.
God will, however, save all of us, irrespective of how we spend Christmas Eve. Let us remember what happened during a long distant December night 2011 years ago. St. Joseph and St. Mary went to Bethlehem, in Judea, for a population census. Judea was a part of the Roman Empire, and the Emperor had ordered everyone to go home and be counted. Since Mary and Joseph were the descendents of David, they headed for Bethlehem.
The birth of their child did not happen in a 5-star hotel, rather a manger inside a cattle shed, apparently with the normal inhabitants looking on. Accommodation was scarce in Bethlehem at the time, and all the inns were full. But still people continued to arrive, most famously of all when a miraculous star declared the Divine Birth to the Three Wise Men of the East, or Magi. They hurried west as fast as their camels would carry them, bringing gold, frankincense and myrrh, even though there was unlikely to have been a stocking hanging from the end of the manger put them in. They came to worship the Savior who was born, as the famous Elizabethan carol says, “to save us all from Satan’s power when we have gone astray...”
The next holiday is New Year, which rudely interrupts the Russian Christmas, which falls on January 7. The New Year celebration irritates the Russian Church. The clergy have to put up with a secular holiday, which does not exactly place the religious aspect of human life very high on the celebratory agenda.
But life is all about compromise, and the New Year is probably Russians’ most beloved holiday—by both religious and non-religious. It is closely connected with the pagan mid-winter holiday, which it commandeered. It is celebrated all over the world regardless of race, religion, sex, intellect, talents or the absence of the latter, thus uniting all of us, albeit through alcohol.
In Russia it is a family holiday. It is customary to celebrate it at home. But the new times have changed even this tradition, and more and more people, especially the young, celebrate the New Year in restaurants, go to the countryside with or without their families, or go abroad. I for one cherish my memories of the New Year that I celebrated in Egypt a couple of years ago. It was fantastic to find yourself by the sea and in a warm climate right in the middle of winter. Bethlehem was only a long camel ride away.
When, in 2005, the Russian government declared a 10-day holiday right after the New Year, it was a shock for a normal active and bustling people who found themselves unprepared for such a long stretch of enforced inactivity. That first winter holiday, which coincided with the school holidays was spent mostly in a state of total, never-ending intoxication.
Over the years, however, some have become acclimatized to this winter present from the government and started to spend it in a more pleasant and useful way—going to the country with their children or enjoying winter sports abroad, especially skiing and snowboarding. Winter can be fun.
The Russian Church, however, reminds us of the Russian Christmas on January the 7th. God only knows why, on top of all other differences, our churches still use the Gregorian and the Julian calendars—but the fact remains. The New Year holiday, of course, does see many attending church, even though many parents prefer to take the children to the country to get some fresh air and exercise rather than stay in the gloomy industrial city.