Christmases Past

Zhenia Vasiliev
There is no Christmas on December 25 in Russia, and foreigners celebrating on that day have long felt the absence of the typical trimmings and trappings. A day off work or from classes is no given for expats; Christmas trees, despite being in forests all around Moscow, are more of a pain to haul home than in metropolises abroad; and whole turkeys have to be hunted down by going from shop to shop.

However, as a motley medley of foreigners have found over the centuries, all you really need is Christmas cheer. Sound corny? Read their accounts: not even the grinchiest scrooge could stay bitter about celebrating their December festivities here afterward.

Merry Western Christmas. May all those left in Moscow have their souls soothed by their own version of the cod fish, plum-pudding and pure gold dishes that have remained so vivid in the memories of Christmases past that follow.

American journalist and spy Marguerite Harrison, jailed for 10 weeks in a KGB prison in the center of Moscow in 1920

It would seem, naturally, that holidays would be harder to endure than other days in prison, but as a matter of fact, this was only partially true. The last two holidays with their home memories were the hardest of all to face, and I shall never forget the two weeks just before Christmas. Some of us, including myself, were foreigners. We knew that there was no hope of our release before the great holiday, but there were several Russian women, detained as witnesses, or on relatively unimportant charges, who hoped up to the last minute.

It was an immense stroke of luck that we had a tree at all, and we owed it to the fact that three days before Christmas we had been taken out to the public baths with an armed convoy, and marched for some distance through the snow-covered streets. They were selling trees in the Trubnaya Square through which we had to pass, and we managed to pick up a number of branches which had broken off and lay scattered on the snow. When we got back to our room we tied them together and stuck them in a bottle, which we covered with white paper that had been wrapped around a package received by one of the prisoners. Then we set about making decorations.

Harrison, Marguerite. Marooned in Moscow: The Story of an American Woman Imprisoned in Russia. New York: George H. Doran company, 1921.

Vladimir Filonov / MT

British travel writer Stephen Graham; spent many years in pre-Soviet Russia in the early 20th century

December and the year had almost unwound themselves. We were among the scantily clothed days at the end of the year . . . around me were many green wooden crosses. . . . Suddenly out of the mist a form emerged, as if the mist itself had taken form. An old woman, tall and bent with age, came slowly forward, gathering sticks here and there as she walked. . . . I did not go nearer, but saw they had planted a new Christmas tree before a grave, and they had hung it with little ornaments and candles. . . . I love Russia. She is something more to me than my native land. Behind her eyes are new mysteries, new potentialities; for she is the daughter of a different family from mine. Those of England who come as I have done will rest under the same spell and feel the same enchantment, but she is a difficult princess to come by. Often, it seems to me I am the only fortunate prince who has found the Sleeping Beauty.

Graham, Stephen. Undiscovered Russia. New York: John Lane Company, 1912.

English traveler Olive Gilbreath, who voyaged from China to Russia in the early 20th century

A grotesque Christmas! I awoke in the express, the sun shining and the whole landscape looking like a monster Christmas Card, silvered and frosted and ready to mail. There through the world, in London and New York, Christmas chimes were ringing. Packages were being untied, and children were pulling toys out of their stockings. I looked out at the monotony of the steppe, at a row of birches fluttering and dancing in the breeze. But there was one bit of holiday. A plum-pudding had been thrust into the car by a kind English friend the last moment in Peking. The Russians had never tasted English plum-pudding and I was eager that this should be irresistible.

Gilbreath, Olive. Russia in Travail: Christmas on the Steppe. London: J. Murray, 1918.

Vladimir Filonov / MT

Jose Milhazes, journalist from Portugal; has lived in Moscow since 1967

The first Christmas [in a foreign place] is always the hardest to spend away from family. In 1967, when I came to Moscow State University, we celebrated Christmas, trying our best to maintain Portuguese traditions. We tried to get some dried cod fish Ч the internationally known traditional Portuguese dish Ч by asking the parents of some friends to send it to us. We couldn't get it directly from Portugal, though, so we had to buy the salted cod because, after all, Moscow hasn't enough sun at this time of year to dry a fish.

There were so many of us at the university that we couldn't find a big enough pan to cook for so many people! In the end, our neighbors, some girls from Cyprus, lent us a big aluminum basin, inside of which all that food finally fit. We all ate together Ч Portuguese, Brazilians, people from Mozambique, Angola. It was a little hard to get wine in those times, too, but we got it, and we ate cod with potatoes and gave each other what gifts we could, although we were still students. There was only one Catholic church in Moscow, but, as we didn't go there much anyway, we didn't go then either.

Gema Zuiga Roestel, doctor from Chile; lived in Moscow from 1979 to 1990

I studied at the People's Friendship University when I lived in Moscow, and we had class on December 25! But our teachers, ignoring the rules, gave us the day off, and we celebrated Christmas every year among compatriots.

Christmas in the Soviet era was a grand event for the Latin-American community. With a sizeable effort, we put together a party with friends. For supper, we used to get a frozen chicken from Bulgaria, which we prepared with rice and vegetables and many, many pieces of fruits that we would buy in Cheryomushkinsky Market. That was festive food for us in the Soviet era, especially when there were shortages. It was quite something to get a good piece of meat! After I had my son, Ivan, I would mark the festive day with much care. We always decorated a Christmas tree with ornaments bought in Detsky Mir, and I made my son believe, until he was 5 years old, that Santa Claus, indeed, existed. Every Christmas, I made these boot marks in the snow on the balcony so that he would think that Santa had entered the apartment to leave him gifts. We used to live in student lodgings that the Soviet government provided us for free. And Ivan always said that he saw Santa Claus coming with gifts and going away, even though nobody played Santa but the boots.

Vladimir Filonov / MT

Mariana Prestes, Brazilian; lived in Moscow from 1970 to 1988. The daughter of the most famous Brazilian communist, Luis Carlos Prestes, she initially lived in political exile with her family, then stayed to continue her studies.

I lived in Moscow until 1988 with my family Ч my father, mother and eight brothers. We celebrated Christmas at home together. My Russian friends and my brothers' Russian friends always came too, and for them it was very interesting because we celebrated just like we used to in Brazil.

My mother used to prepare roasted turkey, farofa [manioc flour toasted in butter or olive oil] and rabanada [French toast], which are popular Christmas dishes in Brazil. We decorated a Christmas tree and put gifts under it, and either my brothers or my brother-in-law would put on a Santa Claus outfit. Our Russian friends went crazy over this because they didn't have that tradition.

Even though we had fun, it was very hard too on holidays, because we couldn't keep in touch with people during the time of the dictatorship in Brazil. We couldn't contact anyone for almost 10 years, not by telephone or by mail, and, of course, there was no Internet then.

Later, though, after being amnestied, my parents went back to Brazil, in 1979, while my brothers and I stayed to finish our studies. Then, on Christmas, my mother would send us some things on Christmas.

Francie Shane, American woman who lived with her husband and three children in Moscow from 1989-90

Despite the collapsing economy at the end of the Soviet Union, my American family greatly enjoyed our two Christmases in Moscow. Of course, life was easy for us compared to a Russian family. We could buy food from Denmark, Finland, the U.S. Embassy and, of course, the Central Market near our apartment and special stores for foreigners with hard currency. We bought a Christmas tree and decorated it with plastic pine cones and shiny metallic balls purchased from the House of Toys. The store also offered up large plastic dolls, bouncing balls, miniature Soviet tanks, Lego look-alikes and more. We celebrated very much as we would've at home, actually delighting in the lack of obsessive commercialism for the holidays. We were well aware, however, of the deprivations most Russians suffered at the time.

More interesting for us was New Year's with dear Russian friends. Boris dressed up as Ded Moroz and completely fooled our young daughters. Masha accompanied him as a lovely Snegurochka. We ate a feast late at night as the New Year arrived, and walked the empty streets of Moscow, circling Pushkin Square, in the wee hours of the frigid night. The next year we were at their dacha in a winter wonderland of pure white snow and thick ice Ч ideal for sledding and skating. We treasure these memories of relatively simple Christmases amidst the blaring Christmas muzak and excessive consumption of the American holiday.

Richard Chancellor, English explorer and navigator; first Brit to sail into the White Sea and establish contact with Muscovy, traveling there from 1554-56. He celebrated Christmas with Tsar Ivan IV, also known as Ivan the Terrible.

On Christmas Day we were all willed to dine with the Emperor's Majesty, where for bread, meat, and drink we were served as at other times before. But for goodly and rich plate we never saw the like or so much before. There dined that day in the Emperor's presence above 500 strangers and 200 Russians, and all they were served in vessels of gold, and that as much as could stand one by another upon the tables. Besides this there were four cupboards garnished with goodly plate, both of gold and silver. Among the which there were twelve barrels of silver containing above twelve gallons apiece, and at each end of every barrel were six hoops of fine gold. This dinner continued about six hours.

Hakluyt, Richard. The Discovery of Muscovy, from the collections of Richard Hakluyt. London: London Cassell, 1889.