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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Left Behind? How Not to Get Scrooged

Creating a home away from home during the holiday season in Russia might seem like a daunting challenge. After all, how does one celebrate Christmas when December 25 is a normal working day, and Russian Christmas festivities as such were banned until relatively recently? A holiday season spent far from away family and familiar traditions is a depressing thought for some people. But for others, staying in Russia has its charms.


"I can't say I wouldn't do it again," says Jennifer Bower, a consultant with Ernst and Young.


Bower stayed in Moscow for Christmas 1991 and entertained her visiting parents. She recalls that they bought a tree, but the rest of their Christmas was decidedly less traditional: They dined at the Georgian restaurant Aragvi and rounded out the evening by eating ice cream at the Night Flight night club.


"It was a little anti-climatic," she admits. "You had to work a lot harder to get into the mood back then. But the Christmas season wouldn't be as bleak now."


Indeed, Moscow city officials have stepped up efforts to create a semblance of Christmas cheer by adorning the streets with more lavish holiday decorations. While Moscow is not easily transformed into a fairy-tale city, Russia is home to such Christmas classics as Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker" and offers plenty of frosty, wintry days for holiday excursions of various kinds.


David Filipov, a reporter for the Boston Globe newspaper, spent the Christmas of 1993 with about 10 other people in the Golden Ring town of Suzdal, a historic and picturesque village that has largely escaped unsightly development. They stayed in an old merchant house which has been converted into a small bed and breakfast.


"It was not an old home, Dickens-style Christmas," Filipov says. But he said it definitely was a "nippy nose" white Christmas in a "rustic setting," adding that the revelers went on long walks, opened presents, and had a big festive meal. They also made good use of the home's banya "running out into the snow scantily clad," he says.


Others have found their holiday winter wonderland right here in Moscow.


"It's great to stay here, particularly when there's snow," says David Kennedy, who works for a pharmaceuticals industry association. Last year, he and his wife went to Gorky Park with their toddler to check out the ice sculptures and go skating, he said. They also went sledding at Kolomenskoye, an old church complex set in a park on the Moscow River.


"Christmas time here is quiet and nice," Kennedy says. "In some ways it's better to stay here because you can relax and wind down."


The hustle and bustle of going home for the holidays may be one good reason to stay put. If you can only go home once a year, some expats say Christmas is not necessarily the most relaxed time of year to do so.


"Every year you have to live out of a suitcase, stay at someone else's place and visit everyone you know," says Julie Brooks, who is planning to spend her first holiday season in Russia this year at a dacha outside Moscow with her boyfriend, Graeme Hogg.


The reasons for staying may vary -- too much work, no vacation days left or just bad timing. Dominique Devos and her husband ended up staying in Moscow for the Christmas of 1993 because they had just moved to town a few months before.


"We bought a Christmas tree and had a big dinner at home," she says, recalling that they watched Dr. Zhivago on Christmas eve and went skating on Patriarch's Pond the following day.


Devos, who works in the Moscow office of Baker & McKenzie, says she and her husband are looking forward to staying in Moscow this year. "The first time we stayed it was for financial reasons. This time it's a conscious decision," she says. For this holiday season, Devos says, they plan to go to a concert on Christmas day and then head out to Suzdal to go sledding and rent horses.


"Low-key" is definitely how most describe spending the holidays in Russia. Jenifer and Shannon Mudd, who are both financial consultants, said they spent their first Christmas in Moscow, in 1994, in a hotel because they too had just moved here. They said they went to McDonald's in the hopes of at least hearing some Christmas music but were disappointed that not even McDonald's had any holiday spirit.


"It wasn't too exciting," Jenifer acknowledges. But she says their next Christmas in Moscow was more festive and they would stay again.


Others may adopt Russian traditions, opting for Ded Moroz -- Father Frost -- over old St. Nick.


"I usually just let it pass," says entrepreneur Curt Cuthbert, who explained that he usually does not take December 25 as a holiday. He instead celebrates New Year's and Orthodox Christmas with his Russian wife and her family.


Perhaps one of the best parts about spending the holiday season in Moscow is that it can go on for so long. Those staying in Russia can stretch out the holiday cheer well after Western parties fall silent and sober New Year's resolutions kick in on January 1. That's just when the fun here begins, with Russian Orthodox Christmas on January 7 and Russian New Year's eve celebrations beginning on the 13th.


"Here you get to celebrate over and over again," says Mickey Berdy, an independent television producer who has been coming to Russia on and off for about 20 years. She tends to focus more on the Russian holidays, she says, but still feels compelled to mark December 25 in some way, usually by inviting her Russian friends over for a big Christmas dinner.


"They're baffled by the ritual of it," Berdy says. "They're baffled that it has to be a goose with stuffing and not roast beef," she explained, pointing out that most of Russia's pre-Revolutionary Christmas traditions, including carols, have been lost.


Russia is gradually reviving some of those traditions. But, driven by economic forces, it is also picking up Western ones, such as generic Christmas decorations and seasonal advertising campaigns that seem to start earlier each year.


Nevertheless, many expats say it is still difficult to track down a tree by December 25 because Russian Christmas comes so much later.


"Last year I got my tree Christmas morning," says Denise Roza, who works for the World Institute on Disability.


"I found two small trees on the corner near my house, and they kind of looked like Charlie Brown's Christmas tree," she said, referring to a classic cartoon about making the best out of a skinny, brown tree picked out by a particularly unlucky lad. "My neighbors were looking at me like, 'What are you doing?'"


Roza says she also usually celebrates the Western Christmas with her Russian friends, who have grown to look forward to her Christmas dinner party. "They will probably be disappointed that I won't be here for Christmas this year," says Roza, who is planning to go home for the holidays for the first time in five years.


Some view staying in Russia for the holidays as an opportunity to escape the hype and commercialism of the Christmas season in the West. While GUM is looking more and more like an American mall, decked out in evergreens and brightly colored lights, it is still a far cry from the retail frenzy of the season back home.


"It's not like in the States where you're hit by constant advertising on TV between Thanksgiving and Christmas, and by the time the 25th comes around you want to scream," says Marya Flanagan, a writer who spent a simple Christmas in Vladivostok a few years ago with her husband, Judson, who works for the International Finance Corporation.


They intend to spend the holidays in Moscow this year and found that their decision to stay had a small snowball effect, encouraging other friends to do the same. They've been collecting ingredients for a Christmas feast and plan to invite people over for an open house.


"It's still fun to have Christmas back home," Marya says. "Here you just have to decide what's important for you and make it happen."