GROWING PAINS: Magic of the Holidays Must Last for Orphans

I did shell out for tickets for New Year's plays and yolka Christmas parties - "not another yolka party," sighed Bobby on the last day of vacation so maybe I overdid it a bit.

And I took my excited 11-year-old, Sasha, off to a Rukhi Vyerkh concert that got the "three-Ks' thumbs up: klyovo, Щruto and Щlasno - all of which mean cool.

But by the end of the vacation, they were quite happy (not to say relieved) to get out of my clutches and back to the relative calm and predictability of school.

My mother-in-law says I spoil them - she thinks I should have just dropped them at the dacha for a fortnight to commune with nature - but I don't agree. I'm their mother, and I like being with them.

Wednesday, I went to a Christmas Party held for over 300 children who don't have mothers at all and whom no one could ever accuse of being spoiled.

They came from four orphanages in and around Moscow. What surprised me as I walked into the room was how subdued the atmosphere was.

The children, ages 5 to 16, were sitting quietly and obediently around their tables, clutching their presents tightly and gazing around at the clowns and charity volunteers in bewilderment.

Their diffidence might have been partly due to the surroundings - the banquet hall in the Radisson Slavyansky Hotel is a far cry from a children's home in the Ryazansk region - but it was also a result of their relatively strict and joyless upbringing. The staff, no doubt, do their best with them, but treats like this are incredibly rare.

Thirteen-year-old Natasha has been living in an orphanage all her life and doesn't know if she has parents or not.

On New Year's Eve, the children "gathered around a Christmas tree with the staff but we didn't get a present," she said.

A British friend of mine who has spent the last three months helping the "Loves Bridge" charity that organized the event by wrapping thousands of little presents for these kids, couldn't understand why they weren't ripping off the paper with boisterous squeals of joy. Many of them were surreptitiously holding them to their chests or shaking them. Others were just fingering the brightly colored ribbons instead.

"It's a shame to open them now," explained 16-year-old Nadya. "It's a shame to tear this beautiful paper. I'll wait until I get home and open them there, slowly and carefully and all by myself."

She hugged the bag to herself and looked up at me with shining eyes.

Well, if a bit of love and attention to kids like this means spoiling them, I'm all for it.