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Christmas and New Years 1/18/06

Father Frost

Christmas was a little odd this year, not that mine haven't been traditionally a bit odd, or slightly out of the mainstream. Indeed they pretty much always have been as I grew up in the hotel business and we worked on Christmas caring for others. I think my younger brother Chris was over twenty-one before he actually celebrated Christmas on Christmas day. But over the past years it has been celebrated with Jerry, my brother Chris and his family, friends such as Louise, Anitra and Robin, before he passed, Margo and others, a movable feast that covered Keene Valley, Albany for a while, Princeton, New York and once Pittsburgh. This year it was Siberia sans family and closest friends.

My 24th was special in that it included a concert of carols dedicated to me and performed by the students of the Foreign Studies department at the Academy of Culture, a fine and well executed array of traditional America, English, German, French, Spanish and Russian songs, some lively dances and a beautiful reenactment of the story of the birth of Jesus with a hilarious concluding skit followed by a feast of cakes and tea.

Galina, her daughter Sasha, son Stas and chicken (prepared for their Russian Orthodox Christmas Eve dinner

I was treated to a lovely dinner at the home of my dear friends Yanzhima and Nicoli that featured a very fine tequila replacing vodka, and a lovely Siberian lunch with Olga and her husband. In addition I got some very sweet email wishes from home and thoughtful gifts from several colleagues.

Christmas isn't celebrated here on the 24th, except by the Mormons, Baptists and Catholics, I assume, as I didn't go to any of their services. Their numbers are modest thus the presence of their celebrations was not wide spread. The usual build up to Christmas lead by our long standing Christian tradition coupled with Madison Avenue's marketing campaign that starts the day after Thanksgiving was been totally absent. No carols blasting over the radios, no pageants and concerts, no Joy to the Children benefit, no festooned houses with hundreds of colored or white lights, faux Santas, plastic reindeers or religious displays in yards or on roofs, no Christmas advertisements in papers or on TV, no 15 or 10 or 5 shopping days left; indeed none of that.

Tending candles in a Russian Orthodox Church on Christmas Eve

Christmas here is celebrated on the 7th of January. But even that isn't quite as you'd expect as Santa Claus, Grandfather Frost named here, and gift giving do not take place on Christmas, but on New Years Eve. In many ways New Years here is our Christmas and New Years rolled into one and thus by far their biggest holiday of the year. There is a build up to New Years that has commonalities and differences. One difference is that people take their holiday vacation from about December 30 through January 9th.

Activities begin around the first of December with the construction of large Christmas-like trees in various parks throughout the city with the largest built in Soviet Square. I say built as they do not go out an cut down, raise up and decorate a monster tree as we do on the White House lawn or Rockefeller Center and countless other public venues. Instead first they create a tall teepee-like wooded frame and wire to it many smaller tees, each around ten to fifteen feet in length laid and bound together up and up until they equal or surpass in height any single tree that I've seen, although the end result is far narrower. Think tall, slender and green. To this the city workers attach many the lights and ornaments as normal.

Then they build ice villages that feature walls, arches, twelve-foot wide slides for the kids, and blocks of ice carved into many fantastic shapes and creatures. Many of the ice structures are lighted from within. In a way it reminded me of the elaborate walls that used to grace the Olympic Arena when I was a kid in Lake Placid back when long cold winters were the norm. Putting all this together takes about three to three and a half weeks. When done they are opened, as they are finished, with fireworks displays that attract mobs of people be it 30 or 40 below as it has been thus far.

This year, starting on the 26th, or Monday of New Years week, the office parties began in earnest. Held in offices and restaurants, one can end up going to several a day, out came the vodka, champagne, dramatic arrays of food, and presents for one's co-workers. Since restaurants are so very expensive, from the point of percent of income, when people go to a restaurant they will start at seven and stay till dawn as they intend to wrest every possible value out of the ruble spent. These affairs usually have a MC to keep the action going that includes spirited line dances, circling around an ever diminishing number of chairs in an attempt to be the last one sitting, professional dancers, some quite exotic, live singers, and a DJ. At the Academy our event began at 3:00 PM, although several department parties were held at noon. Three of my departments stated at five on successive days leading up to the blast that I staggered home from nine hours later leaving many others going strong. Grandfather Frost (he goes by several names) shows up at all the larger events accompanied by his granddaughter as an assistant, who is traditionally dressed in silver with a bit of a snowflake aesthetic. At one office party dinner he performed a rather risqué strip tease that I had not expected but got many women screaming and me wondering what type of role model he was providing his purported young relative.

New Years eve trees, decorated similar to our Christmas trees, are set up in many homes. New Year's eve parties traditionally begin around 10:00 PM with an elaborate dinner that mothers begin preparing at dawn. During the day last minute gift shopping is squeezed in, the ice villages are mobbed - a buildup that will continue until six. Soviet Square was packed with people watching the performances on stage, pressing coins for luck into the ice sculptures, using the many ice slides and hanging out for the giant fireworks display that exploded forth about six thirty and lasted a half hour. Then people dispersed to their homes to get ready for the late evening meal, give gifts, watch countdown shows on television, pop their champagne and cheer in the New Year.

Once midnight is officially reached, staying by the TV lasts about as long as it takes to chug the champagne. Then everyone flies outside to watch and participate in city-wide fireworks display like no other I had seen. Whether it is the nearness to China, or this is a tradition throughout Russia I cannot say, but here it seemed as if every other house was launching fireworks from the small peewee variety that barely made it over roof tops to giant rockets that rivaled any I have seen. In every direction one looked, rockets were sizzling skyward (though a few with a decided more horizontal directory), flares were lighting pockets of the night sky, a vast array of dazzling explosions were taking place, and the sound is hard to describe coming as it was from all directions and added to by bells, whistles, cheers and auto horns.

Naj and Sveta with dancers at Soviet Square

I ate and toasted in the New Year in a small wooden house on slope that overlooked the vast eastern sprawl of the city. In the distance was the pulsating sounds and flashes from Soviet Square that looked like Fort McKinley under siege by the British in 1812, smaller squares featured similar scaled down versions in two other directions, and everywhere else, including from neighbors on all sides poured forth individual and small clusters of rockets. This lasted about a half hour. Well, that's that I thought. Wrong. From there people poured into their cars, taxis, buses, trams and other conveniences, or by foot, horse or sleigh, and headed for the squares.

Crowds at Soviet Square at Midnight (around -30)

Soviet Square at 1:00 AM, quite a bit colder, made the earlier crowds seem like a warm-up. Many came to find friends meeting under the arch or by a particular ice sculpture to determine where next. That invariably meant someone's house or back home this time with a small mob attached before heading off to another's home. And so it went. Having breakfast as I did, at 11:30 AM later that morning, was considered crack of dawn as many across the city were sleeping soundly 'til mid-afternoon. As for doing anything January 1st, forgetaboutit as the only businesses open were a few kiosks and convenience stores. Indeed, a national holiday was in place that would last until the fourth, soon to be followed by their Christmas on the seventh, several more celebrations and holidays including Buryat Christmas this year on the 30th, and White Nights, celebrations that continue until replaced by the coming and emotional uplift of spring.

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