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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree

Новогодняя/рождественская ёлка: New Year’s/Christmas tree

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, everywhere you go …”  This song pops into my mind when I see the first holiday-season street decorations and keeps playing like nonstop until about mid-January. True, not all the signs of the holiday season in Moscow are cheery. First, there are the malls, which are so packed that you feel like a salmon swimming upstream no matter which way you go. And then traffic is so bad that Moscow-bound highways look like Super Bowl parking lots at 6:30 a.m. I’ve stopped looking at the online traffic-jam-o-meter because it always shows the same thing: Город стоит! (The city’s traffic is at a standstill!)

All the same, there is something in the air that raises the spirits and makes you want to deck the halls with boughs of holly. So here’s a little primer on holiday decorating lingo.

Ёлка (fir tree). The practice of decorating a fir tree for Christmas came to Russia by order of Peter the Great after his travels in Europe, although the tradition caught on much later. It was first рождественская ёлка (a Christmas tree), which was celebrated by the Orthodox Church in Russia on Dec. 25 before the Bolshevik Revolution. The tree was banned during World War I (too Catholic and German), reappeared in 1917 as новогодняя ёлка (a New Year’s tree), was banned again in 1926 as anti-Soviet and then reappeared for good in 1935.  

Today, the tree issue is your carbon footprint. If you go the plastic route, look for искусственные ёлки (artificial trees). If you go the sticky-needles route, look for ёлочные базары (fir tree markets) — and remember to ask for a подставка (tree stand). If you want just a bit of fresh-scented greenery without the whole tree, ask for ёловые лапники (fir boughs). When the boughs are on the tree, they are called лапы (yes, the same word for “paws”). When cut, they are called лапники.

Ёлка also can refer to a holiday party, most commonly for children with guest appearances by Дед Мороз (Grandfather Frost) and Снегурочка (the Snow Maiden). So don’t be surprised when you hear: Я купила три билета на ёлку. (I bought three tickets to the holiday party; literally, “for the fir tree.”)

Украшения (decorations). The things you hang on a tree are called новогодние игрушки (literally, New Year’s toys) or ёлочные украшения (tree decorations). These include шары (Christmas balls), фигурки (figurines), сладости (sweets), фрукты (fruit) and орехи (nuts). You can also hang гирлянды (garlands), электрические гирлянды (strings of electric lights), бусы (strings of beads) and мишура (tinsel). The kind of tinsel that I grew up with — static-charged silvery stuff wrapped around a piece of cardboard — is called серебряный дождь (literally, silver rain). The verbs you use for trimming the tree are украшать (to decorate) and наряжать (to dress up). People also say набрасывать мишуру (throw tinsel), which, as everyone knows, is the only right way to get tinsel on a tree.

Happily located between East and West, Russians have adopted an Eastern tradition to go with their Western-decorated trees. For the New Year, they get a figurine of the Eastern zodiac sign. According to highly respected sources — that is, my local free advertising rag — the sign for 2010 is металлический жёлтый тигр (metallic, yellow tiger).  

So while there’s still time: Buy a little metal tiger, plan to dress in tiger-soothing pale blue, pink or yellow, and get ready to toss heaps of tinsel on your tree.  

Michele A. Berdy is a Moscow-based translator and interpreter.