Triple Holidays for Ex-pats
X-mas and New Year’s Eve … and X-mas again
“Happy holidays. All the best.” “OK. Thanks. Same to you.” Staying in Russia over the turn of the year can be more recommendable than probably anticipated. Because it simply means enjoying the triple festivities.
First comes December 24/25. When Westerners get romantic, ceremonious and maybe even a little bit homesick to celebrate Jesus’s birthday, Russians just keep working. December in Russia is a full working month. Just like any other one. Hold it. Except hot, sticky August. (Remember the frightening summer 2010? When almost everybody fled the city.) However, Russians quickly and deliberately adopted one Christmas habit from abroad. X-mas “shoppingmania”. Shops’ windows are lavishly and creatively decorated. Stunning like the window displays of the big, famous department stores in London, Berlin or New York. In the centre of Moscow, enormous, skyhigh Christmas trees are being erected. Usually more than 70. From kitschy to artistic. “Shop-till-you-drop.” This is what the Russians of today have in common with everybody else further West at this time of the year.
Then comes December 31/January 1. In the evening. Russia comes to a grating stop. Everything and everybody. Biggest time of the year since 1700 when legendary Tsar Peter the Great ordered his people to celebrate New Year on January 1, just like the West. This is the night of presents & wishes, hugs & kisses, food & drinks, singing & dancing. Pretty much like Westerners do at Christmas. It’s a family reunion occasion. More than 3/4 of Russians party at home. And spend on average more than 10,000 roubles just for eating and booze.
This evening and the following three days a famous visitor is knocking at many doors. Ded Moroz, the Russian brother of the Western Father Christmas. Verbally translated the name means Grandpa Frost. He wears a long coat and a typical Russian fur hat. His stick takes the form of an icicle. He comes all the long way somewhere from Siberia. In a luxurious horse-drawn troika. Wait. From 1999 certain clever businessmen transferred his home to a small city. Much nearer to Moscow. Approximately 1,000 kilometers North-East from the capital. Veliky Ustiug. This Ded Moroz’s residence in a deep forest, 11 kilometers out of town. It has became a highly profitable tourist Mecca.
In spite of the fact that it’s New Year and not really X-mas, a nicely decorated Christmas tree belongs to Russian habits, too. These days, in Kindergarten and schools, children are often dressed up in costumes resembling snowflakes, rabbits or little bears. They dance around the Christmas tree, shouting out loud for Ded Moroz. And you bet, he’s coming with his gifts.
But the unique difference with Ded Moroz is that he usually is not accompanied by this ugly, punishing fellow called Knecht Ruprecht in German but by Snegorushka. She’s the most beautiful young woman. Wearing a white or light-blue dress and an embroidered coat. Her long, blond hair is firmly plaited. I wish somebody would let me play the Ded Moroz role one year.
Last stop is January 6/7. The Russian- Orthodox Christmas. Traditionally following the Julian calendar. As in other Orthodox countries. The national main divine service is celebrated in the monumental Christ the Saviour Cathedral on the banks of the Moscow river. Held by Kirill, the Patriarch of Moscow and all Russia. And a good number of his fellow priests. It starts at 10pm and goes on for more than three hours. Even if you don’t understand the whole, long ceremony; the candlelit atmosphere is wonderfully mysterious. The endless, somewhat monotone singing of the clergymen can make you feel as though you are participating in a meditation session. Five/six thousand people follow the voice of God. Among them the President of the Russian Federation who this year is still Dmitry Medvedev. No real secret who will be #1 believer next year. All this happens on a ground which had been radically cleared in Stalin times from the previous cathedral (the new one is a oneto- one rebuild), just to make place for a huge public swimming pool area.
All together, Russia is closed, frozen for 10 solid days. Time for the whole nation to take a breath. To relax. To recover. To rethink for the future. But in reality this is a time when a large part of the population eats and drinks far more than they should.
What the hell. What to do? From December 24 to January 10. For 16 long, dark, cold days. Here you go. Some hints. Cross country skiing. Ice skating. Feel like you are in the mountains in the huge indoor alpine ski slope. Make a troika ride through heavy snow out in the country. Get in shape using the gym. Get some culture. Listen to Mozart’s Requiem, performed by one of the magnificent classic orchestras of Moscow in the Catholic Cathedral, a magnificent gothic brick and stone structure, and one hundred years old. Spend a day in the Tretyakov Gallery. Or the Pushkin Museum. Or one of the dozens of other museums. Travel the ancient pearls of the legendary Golden Ring towns. Experience how the Tsar’s family and the nobles lived. You can be amazed for days in St. Petersburg. Read. Look at the films you wanted to watch for a long time. Just sit and chat, play games with family and friends. Over a cup of tea with honey. Or some shots of vodka.
In the end you might regret when January 10 approaches that fast. These long public winter holidays in Russia can be quite pleasant. Quite amusing. Quite educating. And quite tiring. In a good sense. So much to do.
Happy New Year!