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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

How Expats Deal With Christmas in Russia

During the 18 years that English teacher Michael Waganda has been on Russian soil, he has never celebrated Christmas.

"When I was a student in the Soviet Union, we were scared to go to church," said Waganda, a native of Kenya. "We were worried that they would write down our names and threaten us." He acknowledges that he missed the celebrations during his first two years away from home, but no longer. "It has turned into a day that simply came and went," he said.

Though many foreigners living in Moscow may gravitate to warmer climes or just go home for the holidays, plenty will stay in the capital over the Christmas period. For Waganda, who has stopped celebrating the occasion, it is the Russian New Year that brings a smile to his face. But for others looking for a festive treat there are a variety of ways to make merry.

Some people who have lived in Moscow for a while say that the event is not the same as it used to be. Sunitha Narayanan, a doctor at the International Medical Clinic, didn't begin celebrating Christmas until after she left India. She studied medicine first in Tashkent, then in Moscow at the First Medical Institute. During the six years she has spent away from India, she has never gone home for Christmas.

"My sweetest memories were my years in Tashkent, because the student community was much closer there," she said. Friends from all over the globe would get together. "There was food and drinking and dancing all night long in the apartment," she remembered.

Since 1995, however, the holiday has become less festive, as most of her student friends have left. She also has to work on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day as many doctors are required to do.

Eric Downing, a Canadian physician who also practices at the International Medical Center will be spending his fifth Christmas in Moscow this year. His Christmas celebrations in Russia include keeping a small decorated tree in his home, going out to a restaurant with his family or getting together with other families who have kids. He wouldn't do anything special on this day, he said, if it wasn't for his 5-year-old son, who loves everything connected with Christmas -- the decorations, the lights and, most of all, the presents.

Steve Meneely, an American restaurant consultant who has been working in Moscow for 4 1/2 years, says he finds spending Christmas in Russia as a huge relief. "The benefit of being here is not getting stressed out. Everyone in the U.S. gets so anal retentive this time of year," he said.

Others are not so lucky. The foreign news bureaus, for example, must have at least one correspondent on call at all times. At The Associated Press, which operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week, the staff is required to work at Christmas. The workload is not necessarily reduced during the holidays, said bureau chief Barry Renfrew.

Another group of foreigners, the U.S. Marines, are synchronizing a worldwide program to celebrate the holidays with several Russian orphans. They are sponsoring Toys for Tots in Moscow, part of an international campaign, that has distributed toys to needy children over the past few decades. During the holiday season, the soldiers have been collecting boxes of toys, Russian/English dictionaries, English grammar books and sports equipment around the embassy. On Jan. 7, Russian Orthodox Christmas, the Marines will distribute the gifts and devote an entire day to an orphanage outside Moscow.

For those looking for entertainment over the Christmas week, plenty of restaurants around town have been preparing for the holiday. On Dec. 24 and 25, Brasserie Du Soleil will feature a menu of specially prepared ham, turkey and salmon dishes, gift surprises, live music and a discotheque.

Club Hemingway is organizing a special Christmas dinner with a Latin American flavor, serving Cuban and American food, and plans to let customers take swings at its Mexican pi?ata. Made of colored paper, a pi?ata is hollow and often filled with candy or other gifts. Blindfolded, contestants take turns swinging at it with a stick until it bursts, spilling its contents for everyone to grab.

Other dining options include the Vienna Cafe, in the Renaissance Moscow Hotel. On Christmas Eve, the cafe will serve a smorgasbord buffet accompanied by Christmas music. A lunch buffet with classical music and a Christmas show for children featuring Ded Moroz, Father Frost, and Snyegurochka, the Snow Maiden, will take place Dec. 25. The Aerostar Hotel will also offer an extensive menu on both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.