Fir tree decorated with baubles and tinsel? Yes. Old man with a white beard and red suit delivering presents? Yes. Celebrating with the family. Absolutely. Christmas? No. Not Christmas… but New Year. You see, the thing is that Communism and Christianity don’t exactly go together, so since the 1930s the more secular Christmas traditions in Russia have become incorporated into New Year celebrations.
Nowadays Christians all over Russia are free to publicly celebrate Christmas (for Orthodox Christians on January 7th according to the old Julian calendar) but New Year is still when the big party happens and the presents get delivered. Although they don’t come from Santa. The Russian version (who isn’t always dressed in red – he has a much more diverse sense of fashion and is often portrayed in elaborately embroidered blue or silver) is known as Grandfather Frost. He’s a little different to Santa, for a start he carries a magical staff, and his sleigh (or Troika to be more accurate) is pulled by three horses instead of reindeer. He also doesn’t need to worry about squeezing down chimneys because he simply magically unlocks the front door! Much easier to explain to children who live in a modern building without a fireplace! But the big difference is that he is accompanied by his rather glamorous grandaughter known as the Snow Maiden. Isn’t she lovely? Imagine how much money Disney would make from a Christmas film that she featured in!
Most of the decorations look very similar to back home: tinsel, trees, and lots of sparkly lights – but the fact that the focus is on New Year also means that this year the decorations include monkeys. Yes, monkeys. I was perplexed too until my Russian teacher presented me with this one as a gift and explained that 2016 is the Chinese year of the monkey. I’m not sure how long Russia has embraced its neighbour’s cultural traditions but I’ve seen enough monkey decorations to suggest that it’s a trend that’s here to stay.
Moscow is a fabulous place to spend the festive season. The snow is an obvious bonus, plus you can go ice-skating, or take a Troika ride, there are ice-sculptures and many of the streets are lit with decorations. From the last 10 days or so of December, when all the outdoor decorations are up, to the celebration of Old Russian New Year on the 10th of January (the Julian calendar again!), there’s quite simply a magical feel about the place. As someone who recently moved here said: “this is the most Christmassy city I have ever lived in.”