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Growing up in Soviet Russia, I didn’t know what Christmas was, let alone celebrate it. Every winter we did, however, celebrate the biggest holiday of the year – New Year’s. All across the country, between the end of December and mid-January, major festivities were held at schools, kindergartens, universities, and places of work, with singing, dancing, and lavish decorations.
For a couple of weeks each year, you got transported from an otherwise harsh and dreary Soviet reality into the magic of holiday cheer, with fireworks, marching bands, streetlights and firecrackers. The centerpiece of the holiday was the New Year’s Pine Tree (Yolka) that decorated every home and workplace.
My sister and I relished the moment when we helped our mother decorate with ornaments a freshly cut Yolka that our father brought home. And we couldn’t wait to go to mom’s workplace to dance a khorovod around the lit-up tree and get a translucent sack filled with candy and one tangerine – a big rarity back then, especially in winter – from a bushy eye-browed and long-bearded Grandfather Frost and his granddaughter Snowgirl. It was a fairytale that became real, albeit just for a few short days.
What I didn’t realize until my early twenties was that the Soviet government did indeed feed us a fairytale. In my fourth year of college, I was one of very few students sent on an exchange program to London. That December, to my astonishment, I learned that the British celebrated something called Christmas, with a Yolka called a Christmas Tree and a Grandfather Frost called Santa Claus, but without the charming granddaughter. Instead, he had a sweetly innocent reindeer, Rudolph. On December 24 and 25, the Brits also went to church and sang Christmas carols. They spoke about the birth Jesus Christ as the reason for the holiday. That was as much of a shock to me at 22 as that of my American children learning that Santa wasn’t real.
That year, I learned that Grandfather Frost and Snowgirl were Soviet inventions designed to remove religion from the Christmas holiday that was celebrated in imperial Russia up until 1918, when Bolsheviks seized power, killed the czar, and pronounced atheism as state religion, with hammer and sickle replacing the cross.
Having declared that religion was the “opiate of the masses,” the new, proletariat regime decided that the state, not God, was the purveyor of all rights to humans, and that Vladimir Lenin, the Chief Revolutionary, was to be worshiped, with his portraits hanging on every wall and decorating children’s first reading book.
Lenin, with a stroke of a pen, canceled Christmas and indeed, all religious observance, by signing a decree on February 8, 1918, “On Introducing a West European Calendar in the Russian Republic.” Until then Russia followed an Orthodox, Julian calendar, and celebrated Christmas, which it called the “The Birth of Christ,” Rozhdestvo Khristovo. Lenin’s decree transitioned Russia to the Gregorian calendar, which runs 13 days ahead of the Julian. Rozhdestvo Khristovo disappeared from the calendar all together, making December 25, 1917, the day of the last celebration of Russian Christmas. Today, post-Soviet Russia celebrates Orthodox Christmas on January 7, but New Year’s remains the biggest holiday of the year.
Since arriving, I’ve been savoring the freedoms in America, my adopted homeland. Americans are free to practice any religion or none at all. I don’t put up a Christmas tree in my house because I’ve converted to my husband’s faith, Judaism. So, we put up a menorah and light candles to celebrate Hanukkah.
My sister – who recently shared with me that she also didn’t know about Christmas until she left Russia – has a Christmas tree in her house in America. She even goes to church, although we were raised without religion, having shared with me that our grandmother had us secretly baptized when we were babies. Our parents kept it a secret, in order not to raise any suspicions about our family with Soviet authorities.
I am saddened that America is becoming more secularized. Research indicates that a quarter of Americans have a secular worldview now, and three in 10 adults are religiously unaffiliated.
I know the feeling of emptiness that can fill your soul if you don’t believe that there’s some other being, looking after you and guiding you, especially in difficult times. I know what happens when you let the state become your religion. Soon it starts perceiving itself as the Almighty Himself, imposing its control on every aspect of your life. I hope my American children will never be forced to worship the government. Here’s to Merry Christmas! No cookies by the chimney for Grandfather Frost.