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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Christmas Consuming a la Russe

For Russia's flamboyant New Rich, the upscale Sadko Arcade is the place to visit during the Christmas holidays.


Sadko secured its spot in the annals of conspicuous consumption two years ago with its costly, plush animals. In some Moscow circles, 1994 became the Year of the $10,000 Stuffed Horse.


This year, Sadko's theme is Home Holiday Decor, and the Swiss-run arcade blazes with a dazzling array of handmade German decorations and artificial trees costing as much as $4,500.


"It's snow-proof, water-proof!" Sadko executive Martin Binder enthuses, gesturing at the 4 1/2-meter-high faux fir. "You can even put it outside!"


The flashy, post-Soviet elite used to flaunt its wealth in the bluntest possible fashion: Wear it, drink it, drive it, eat it. But the days when a Mercedes said it all are over. Now, Russia's New Rich are getting house proud, Binder says.


He's sold seven of the trees so far, and five $1,290 angels with silver wings and golden hair. As for the $329 wreaths, well, he's simply lost count.


The waxed ends of his handlebar moustache fairly quiver with delight as he speaks about this holiday season. "People started buying in mid-November," he says. "It's the first time here so early!"


Russia's big holiday is New Year's, but it wasn't always this way. In pre-revolutionary Russia, Christmas was still Christmas.


Everyone caroled in the streets -- sometimes even the tsar. Churches had elaborate services, and families and friends feasted at groaning tables. The party lasted until the New Year, which was greeted with fancy-dress parties and fortune telling.


All that ended with the Bolsheviks and the advent of official atheism. New Year's became the main holiday, acquiring secularized Christmas trappings like the tree, the presents and Father Frost, a Santa-like figure.


After 70 years of such determined repression, Christmas -- celebrated here on Jan. 7 -- may never recover its past glory as a religious holiday. But New Year's in post-Soviet Russia becomes more festive -- and more commercial -- with each turn of the calendar.


The signs are everywhere.


Kit Kat candy signs encircled with red lights adorn a huge tree near Pushkin Square. Soda-sipping Santas beam down from billboards. Shopkeepers have decorated their windows, and even modest little kiosks sport strings of twinkling lights.


Mayor Yury Luzhkov -- a bread-and-circuses kind of guy, no matter what the season -- has bigger plans than ever, the local press reports.


The plastic presents under the six city trees will be lighted this year, and new, illuminated figures of Father Frost and his companion Snegurochka -- "The Snowmaiden'' -- are going up on the Novy Arbat.


"The Snegurochka figure gives presents to small rabbits, who jump for joy," says Galina Shvets, deputy head of the city's Decorations Department. But even the mayor's Santa-like efforts can't cheer up a Russian capital gloomy over this winter's belated snowfall.


Last week at GUM, the huge department store across Red Square from Lenin's tomb, a strolling Father Frost with spiffy, red-and-white sneakers peeking out from his scarlet suit, pondered what kind of present he'd like this year.


The blue-eyed Snegurochka at his side tugged at his sleeve. "Italy!" she prompted. "Say you want to go to Italy."


"Nope," he said, "it's too hot." He thought for a minute. "Snow," he said. "I want snow."


If it hadn't been for the weather's recent accommodation of Father Frost's wish, he might have opted to try Sadko's. They've got just the thing: a clever little machine that spurts plastic snow all over your artificial tree. Just $528.