So, apparently it’s December.
With the distinct lack of Christmas music being blasted out of every available speaker and an aversion to Russian television ensuring that I don’t see a single second of the Christmas Coca-Cola advert (the holidays are still coming, right?), I have been forced to take matters into my own hands if I am to track down some seasonal jollies.
Waking to find the temperature sitting at a positively tropical -14°C, I pulled on my hat, gloves and energy-saving grimace and set off out into the cold afternoon. It wasn’t snowing, mercifully, but I soon found myself in the city centre with a finger frozen to the shutter button of my camera and a cloud of my own breath obscuring the festive images before me. My thermometer had lied. It was -18 again.
A tree was finally up in стефановская площадь, and while it was still without decoration (and the promised ice sculpture accompaniments), it was just enough to send a slight seasonal shiver down my spine, inadvertently setting off the only part of my body that didn’t already have the shakes. It was a welcome sight, and completely changed the atmosphere of a square usually dominated by Lenin’s statue and weekend horse-riders.
Of course, it would be wrong to refer to it as a Christmas tree, as the tradition is a little different here in Russia. First imported in the 17th century from Europe, the practice of marking the season with spruce trees — or New Year “Yolkas”, as they are more commonly known — was later banned until Pavel Postyshev revived the tradition in 1935 with a letter published in a political newspaper.
Since then the practice has grown in popularity, to the point where such a tree has been erected at Moscow’s Palace of Unions every year since. Underprivileged children from across the Republic are invited to witness the spectacle and to meet the festival’s figureheads: Ded Moroz and Snegurochka, otherwise known as Father Frost and Snow Maiden. I can only presume that they’re wearing Rudolf.
I was introduced to the fairytale during a free period at school on Saturday. From what I understand, Father Frost is rather different to Father Christmas, often on purpose. Residents of Veliky Ustyug — a town that’s also famous for sour cream and cottage cheese — the duo are in situ for most of the year, where they are “played” by actual people for the amusement of toddlers and tourists. At only 395 miles away, it is apparently nearby.
With the majority of Russians living in flats rather than houses (until they can relocate to their countryside dachas in the summer), Frost has had to rethink his whole delivery system. Armed with a mystical staff and Snow Maiden’s helping hands, he instead magics the presents under the tree, usually with the help of an assorted army of animal assistants. You just have to hope that nemesis Baba Yaga doesn’t magic them straight back out again.
One festive fairy-figurehead down, I decided to take in another while I was out and about. A brief walk along Ул. Ленина took me to St. Stephen’s Cathedral, an impressive monument to Russian orthodoxy which seems to rise straight out of the snowy street ahead. Destroyed in 1932, the structure was rebuilt in 2001 and now dazzles with its pristine, white exterior and the glistening gold of its three “onion domes”. (Really, Wikipedia? Is that really what they’re called?)
As nice as it was to see a half-naked fir tree and a religious relic, however, it wasn’t quite the same experience as opening an advent calendar or catching a bit of “All I Want For Christmas” in HMV. Now back at the flat with chocolate, crisps and feeling in my fingers, I think I might do what I should have done in the first place: YouTube The Snowman.