In Anticipation Of Christmas In Moscow

Some people think the worst thing in the world is to spend Christmas in Moscow. I am here to tell you that it is not.


Okay, so it is just an ordinary day here, with that same old tired feel. While the rest of the world gathers around brightly-lit Christmas trees and exchanges gifts, you sulk under bleak skies, dreaming of mistletoe and feeling like the Grinch. People around you go about their lives as if it were just another ordinary day -- which for them it is. It is minus 24 degrees Celsius, and the sun, what there is of it, sets at 4 P.M.


Back in the bad old days, Soviets ignored Christmas -- both ours and their own Orthodox Christmas -- as if it did not exist, and for obvious reasons. First, it is a religious holiday, and second, bourgeois. In the spirit of the Cold War, teachers often used to force their forlorn foreign students to sit through lectures on Christmas day. This regularly sent the poor foreigners into fits of depression and caused even the most Russified among them to flock to the American Embassy for some Christmas cheer.


But Christmas is not that bad here anymore. In fact, it gets better every year.


Holiday decorations have been up, at least in the stores, since the end of November -- earlier than ever before, especially when you think about the fact that they are going up for Novy God (New Year) and not the West's Christmas. A huge Ded Moroz welcomes holiday shoppers at the trendy Valdai Center. Coca-Cola and Panasonic have their bright red and green holiday ad campaigns out, bringing cheer to those cold bus stops.


Shops urge customers to pick up gifts early and for those of us who inextricably link the holiday season with gifts, shopping, bargains and more gifts, behold the Christmas sales -- not bad for a country that just three years ago had no concept of a consumer economy.


Then there are the holiday decorations for sale everywhere from Roditi to your local universam, not to mention myriad concerts, brunches and feasts. There is so much going on that you'll barely have time to think about the Christmas carols you're missing at home.


Once they started celebrating their own Christmas, about four years ago, Russians suddenly grew very interested in Dec. 25. My husband and I were actually interviewed as an average American couple for a Channel One morning program about how Americans celebrate Christmas.


So when we were "stuck" here last year for Christmas, while the rest of the foreign community cleared out, it did not seem so bad. We set up our cheap plastic tree and put presents under it for everyone, including the cat and dog. We invited all the wayward souls we knew who were sticking around, crammed a picnic table into the living room of the dacha and piled it high with goodies. We sat around and joked about how happy we were not to be crammed into planes full of holiday travellers.


It was a nice way to start Russia's real holiday season, which with two New Years and Orthodox Christmas, runs for nearly three weeks.


Of course, the holidays in Russia also have their tense aspects. Three years ago, former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev stepped down from office on Dec. 25, signalling the official break-up of the Soviet Union. Two years ago, Moscow was reeling from the loss of Yegor Gaidar as prime minister. Last year, it was Vladimir Zhirinovsky. It takes a little more than Christmas cheer, it seems, to overcome the everlasting Kremlin intrigues.