. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Savior a Survivor: The Humble Christmas Tree

The days are getting shorter and shorter and the nights longer and longer. It is beginning to seem that darkness is overtaking light, that you spend your time in the dusk. Colors disappear, and gray shades are all that remain.


White snow melts before it reaches the wet asphalt, or if a winter freeze sets in, then the ice-covered ground makes going outside all the more loathsome.


Depression, depression and once more depression: You begin to understand this state of mind as you reach 40 years old. The remarkable contemporary Russian poet Gennady Aigi excludes himself from any kind of social contact during November and December. He lies in bed at home like a bear in a den.


What about winters spent as a child? There is a feeling of despair at having to drag yourself out of bed and make your way in the darkness to school. Your tiny heart is warmed by only one thought: You know that all this gloomy muck will end in the New Year. There will be a yolka, a fir tree, and there will be the sharp smell of needles and mandarins which, when I was a child, were brought from the then-Soviet Georgia.


I knew that my friends used to go with their parents to pick out a yolka at the bazaar. In my family, we did things differently: The yolka would appear mysteriously during the night when I was sleeping. And I woke up not from the sound of the alarm clock but the new, extraordinary scent of a forest. And our yolka always seemed to be the best of all possible trees.


Then the most important part began: As slowly as I could, I would clear away some space on the dinner table and spread out all the decorations that had been stored away. There would be glass stars, paper flags, small blinking lights, little bears, apples, rabbits with carrots, wide-eyed golden fishes made of cardboard and birds of paradise on threads. And there were decorations that we made ourselves by wrapping nuts and candies in silver and gold foil.


The grandfather of my cousin worked as a window dresser of stores on Stretenko Ulitsa, which seemed to me quite luxurious at the time. He used to bring us small samples of different colored ribbons, which we also used to trim the yolka.


Only 25 years earlier, the New Year's tree had been forbidden by the highest decree of the Communist powers, since it was considered a dangerous religious remnant. True, within a few years the authorities came to their senses somewhat, understanding that it was impossible to fight with the people over how they celebrated holidays. The trees had continued to be trimmed, but secretly. The holiday was thus the first to triumph over ideology.


There is not enough future


There is little of the old, the new


Would that eternity fill the room


As a Christmas tree


Boris Pasternak wrote these lines, which survived all bans, just as the Christmas tree did.


The New Year was always the most loved holiday and the only one -- of all the Soviet holidays -- that was truly humane. The leadership allowed the yolka, but one that was separated from its Christian history. The idea of eternity found in the evergreen was not to be recalled.


Among the tree trimmings that were sold at New Year's fairs, there were never stars for the tree tops but only spires. There was never any mention of Bethlehem and the birth of Jesus there.


But besides the leadership, there were grandmothers, who had been raised in a quite different era. And grandmothers, it turned out, defeated the leadership with their ideas, since they quietly told their grandchildren about the miracle in Bethlehem. At midnight on New Year's, under the chimes of the Kremlin bells, whichever general secretary happened to be in power would ceremonially congratulate his fellow countrymen and countrywomen and announce the unprecedented successes of our socialist homeland. And it was his right to commence the opening ceremony, as if he himself, the secretary, was the one to decree that the new year would begin Jan.1.


But the yolka transformed the situation: It proclaimed that aside from the powers of the Communist Party, there were even higher powers. And who does not believe in secret powers as a child?


Russian Christmas is celebrated beginning the night of Jan. 6, and the Old New Year starting the night of Jan. 13. This space of time -- from Dec. 31 to Jan. 14 -- has always been sacred, a time for the yolka, which was not to be moved or taken away, no matter how many needles were tracked throughout the apartment.


For two weeks after the holiday, during which the yolka was a tsaritsa, I went to school with a sunken heart, trying to keep my eyes away from the skeletons of trees that had been thrown in the back courtyards onto the gray snow.


Did the yolka represent a kind of national rebellion? No. Rather, it was an expression of national memory, of the fact that although the Bolsheviks adjusted the Russian calendar, they could not change it entirely. People wished one another a Merry Christmas, including communists, who did so just in case!


The Old New Year was another such holiday, and one that was particularly filled with surprises. The holiday had no schedule, no order and no laws. This made the Russian New Year particularly special. And it continues to be cherished. We at the thick journal Znamya award our yearly literary prizes to the best writers at precisely this time.


Once I had the incredible fortune to be in Jerusalem at the beginning of January. After December in Moscow, I was unaccustomed to the warm weather, the marvelous smell of dry herbs, lavender and laurel and the golden city under the clear-blue sky.


When I told my friends that I wanted to go to Jerusalem, they said it was dangerous and would not let me go alone. Fortunately, Bethlehem was quiet then. Or perhaps this is just how it seemed to me. The grotto in which Jesus was born turned out to be small, and candles burned under the low vaults. When I went out into the open air, I saw endless golden hills that extended before me and vanished toward the Dead Sea, toward Moscow and Rome, Paris and London. On Christmas day, I stood at the point at which my world began, the world of Europe, North America, Russian culture, of Dostoevsky, Tarkovsky, Bulgakov. True, it was a bright day and not a dark Christmas night.


And when night did fall on Jerusalem, I saw the gold stars flickering in the dark blue sky. And this reminded me of the cupola of the Sergy Trinity Monastery outside Moscow: The very same stars embellish the cathedral's blue cupola. And I remembered my grandmother and how she sat smoking a papirosa as she told me about an infant and three wise men on dark December Moscow evenings.





Natalya Ivanova is deputy editor of Znamya. She contributed this essay to The Moscow Times.