Thursday, December 20, 2012

A Christmas Story...From Russia

It's that time of year, when I take a break from recommending wonderful things to do around the world and instead, tell a story.  You all who have looked in on this blog over the last several months probably think that I am either never at home, or that I have never been anywhere.  Well, it's a combination.  I'm not as young as I used to be, and I don't get to globe trot as much as I used to.  I have dreams of going places and doing things, but I have also done some things that none of you have ever done or will ever be able to do.  I say that because they are some things that only happened once.
Above is a picture of Red Square in Moscow at Christmas time.  I do recommend going there to take in the excitement.  I do this for a couple of reasons.  First, because you can have Christmas at home and then take off and go for Christmas in Moscow.  Their traditional Christmas is on January 7th.  That gives you time to do the family thing and go to Russia.  Second, I recommend this because Christmas is new here.  Not truly new, but for 78 years it was not celebrated in public because of the Soviets.  January 7, 1992 was the first Christmas celebrated throughout Russia publicly in decades.
These were the decorations at the Kremlin for that first Christmas in 1992, and I was there.
I had been to the Soviet Union just before the August Coup, and I returned to see what things would look like after Communism.  It was primitive that first year.  There weren't a lot of Christmas lights all over the city, but there were a few well placed Christmas trees outside the Kremlin and on Arbot Street.  It was the awakening of a spirit.

They've come a long way.
So begins my story.  January 6, 1992.  There was a pretty good snow storm in the Moscow area.  The locals didn't think anything of it, because it was normally a lot worse.  I was traveling with a group of students around Eastern Europe, and we'd come to Moscow for the brand new Christmas holiday.
A group of law students from the University of Moscow asked me and my group if we would be interested in going out to a local village to help the local children learn about the meaning of Christmas.  We jumped at it.  We then sat on a rickety old school bus of sorts for four hours through the snow and the countryside in the dark to get to a village that I to this day do not know the name of.
When we arrived, we found a village of a couple hundred people who were all anxious to meet the Americans and see what we were like.  Most of them had never traveled far from home and it was quite an exotic experience for them as well as us.

The method of getting around at the time was mostly by skis for those people, and the building was part of a summer camp that the surrounding villages came to.  That was where we stayed for the night.  It was a lovely accommodation, especially since the weather got so bad that no one wanted to try and go back to Moscow in the middle of the night.
So, the first thing that we went about doing was meeting some of the people who lived there.  They were wonderful and so curious to see what our take on Christmas was.  They were prepared to teach us about how they rang in the New Year, but Christmas was a little bit fuzzy for them.
Everyone crammed into the building which turned out to be set up more like a school in America.  It had a gymnasium with a stage for plays and other performances.  We decided that due to the language barrier that we were all feeling a little bit, we would tell them about Christmas by doing a play.  We felt that even though we all spoke some Russian, the people there were frustrated because they spoke absolutely no English, and our Russian was probably awful.
We did our best to perform the Nativity for them, even though we had no set, and not much to use for props or costumes.  The good news is that they understood us and afterward we were able to show them references in their bibles.
We then set about trying to explain Santa Claus, which we discovered was the part that they had learned before we arrived and called him Father Frost, and then we sang some of our Christmas carols to give them an idea of American things.
The children of the village jumped right into the spirit of the cross cultural education and did a play about their local life, then they did some dances for us.  It was a wonderful way to spend the evening.
Now, it's rude to us to go to a Christmas party empty handed, so we'd all grabbed a toy in the city and brought it for the kids in the village for their first Christmas Eve.

Little did we know that they'd prepared a huge party for us to celebrate the holiday with the entire village.  There was a feast and presents and everything.  It was one of the most fun holiday evenings I've ever had.  We got to talk to everyone and through that language barrier we all did a pretty good job of getting to know one another.  The children were all excited, because it turns out that they thought that this was only going to happen once.  They thought that this was something that they were doing to celebrate the end of Communism.  When we explained that this was a religious holiday celebrated throughout the world every year, they were thrilled.  Their little faces lit right up and stayed that way the whole time we were there.
In this village they had a tradition.  Remember, we were there to learn too.  Since New Year's was on the 14th, and we would be long gone by then, the locals wanted to show us their New Year's traditions.  So, at midnight the locals in that village had a tradition.  You took a piece of paper and wrote down your regrets from the year past and your hopes for the year future.  Then at midnight they all took turns pitching them into a fire that they built outside in the snow.  Then, after you throw the paper in the fire, you're supposed to jump over it to leap from the old year to the new.  We gladly took part in that tradition and it was a wonderful night.  After that, we all danced around the fire until we were so exhausted that we had to go to bed.
In the morning everyone had come back to the building where we stayed and made a pancake style breakfast for everyone and the whole village.  They all brought their presents and opened them as a group.  It was one of the most touching Christmas mornings I'd ever been a part of.
Unfortunately, by noon it was time for us to go.  We were scheduled to go to Red Square for the first Christmas celebration that evening, and we didn't want to miss that either.  It was sad saying good bye to our new friends in the village.  They'd gone out of their way to make their first Christmas special for total strangers from America.  You don't meet people that outgoing and gracious very often.  I don't know who did the biggest favor that night, us or them.  I saw the looks on the faces of the children as we were leaving.  They really didn't want us to go.  In a way, that felt good.
It was very hard to leave that little face, although Anna probably has her own kids by now.
Travel is a wonderful thing.  Don't ever shy away from it, because you're afraid that you won't feel comfortable, or you won't like it, or you won't be able to talk to people, or you're afraid you'll get lost.  Embrace it.  If you never decide to take the plunge and do take that exotic vacation that you've always dreamed about to a place that is completely alien to you, you could miss something that only happens once.  I've always been glad that I went to that little village that day.  It's one of the few experiences that I've had that no one else can really have.  It's special to me, and I have and will always cherish it.
So, that's my story.
I still will say that spending a Christmas in Moscow is going to be an experience for anyone.  They're crazy about Christmas over there, because they were denied it for so long.  So do go and enjoy.
Merry Christmas!


1 comment:

  1. Photos you shared in this blog is really looking fantastic and nicely clicked. I am glad to read your blog. Thanks for sharing your experience and photos with us. keep posting like this.
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