MOSCOW — Christmas lights twinkled throughout this city last week, and Christmas carols filled the air. On a car radio, I heard “Jingle Bells,” sung by a choir whose native language was certainly not English, as well as an orchestral version of “Frosty the Snowman.” Street markets were filled with wooden Christmas tree ornaments: tiny soldiers, snowmen carrying ice skates, angels blowing trumpets, onion-domed churches. At first glance, all seemed to be well in the capital of the former Soviet Union: Communism is gone, Christmas is back, good tidings all around.
Look a little harder, however, and the picture changes. For one, seasonal goodwill does not explain the proliferation of Christmas lights in Moscow. On the contrary, shopkeepers are only obeying the law: Moscow’s mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, has made Christmas decorations obligatory. Some grumble, some do the minimum — a single red bulb, a moth-eaten wreath — but most just shrug. It’s not the first time they’ve been ordered to be happy.
But the Western carols and plastic reindeer also hide a thornier Russian problem: When is Christmas, actually? In pre-Soviet days, Russians celebrated Orthodox Christmas, on Jan. 7, and kept on celebrating with feasts and fortune-telling for the next 12 days, right on through to Epiphany. Some keep to this calendar today, although most of those who do so live in the countryside, on the outskirts of cities, away from the centers of power. Despite the fad for Orthodoxy — even President Putin, a former KGB colonel, now describes himself as a “believer” — Orthodox Christmas hasn’t quite made it into the urban mainstream.
Far more follow a newer tradition. During the Soviet era, “Christmas” as such, was abolished, along with all other religious holidays, and replaced with “New Year.” Soviet citizens bought New Year’s trees, gave New Year’s presents, sent New Year’s cards and famously drank too much at New Year’s Eve parties. The Orthodox Saint Nicholas was abolished, and replaced with Grandfather Frost, who was usually accompanied by a snowmaiden. Without question, New Year remains the most popular form of Christmas holiday in Russia. Some like it because they’ve always celebrated it. Some celebrate it without particularly liking it, simply because they have no particular reason to celebrate the religious holiday and haven’t got another one.
By contrast, the celebration of Western Christmas on Dec. 25 is a phenomenon purely of the most recent, post-Soviet decade. This week, a poll showed that 18 percent of Russians intend to celebrate on Dec. 25 (which remains a working day). Those who do so are, among other things, more likely to be well-off, more likely to be under the age of 25, and more likely to live in large cities. Some are Catholics — there are about 500,000 in Russia — but most are part of a new generation of Russians who identify themselves with the West and wish to celebrate in a Western way. Even among such people, there remains a good deal of confusion about what Christmas is actually about. One Russian friend explained with great confidence that “Christmas is the day Jesus was crucified.”
It’s an odd problem, at once trivial and profound. For although the proliferation of Christmas isn’t, perhaps, the greatest crisis facing Russia today, it does hint at a deeper set of uncertainties. If Russians can’t decide how to celebrate Christmas in the post-Soviet world, neither can they decide how to be Russians in the post-Soviet world. A few imagine modern Russia as a continuation of czarist-era Russia, albeit somewhat lacking in fairy tales and fortune-tellers. Others think that Russia, as the largest post-Soviet republic, ought to take over the habits and the international role of the old Soviet Union. This group, which is growing louder with every passing year, has already pushed the Russian state to adopt the old Soviet national anthem, along with other Soviet symbols and practices. The third group, growing in numbers if not in volume, contains those who want Russia to become a part of the West. So far, that often implies adopting the trappings of Western culture (Christmas decorations and Christmas sales and Santa Claus) without much understanding of the Western values that lie beneath the surface.
No one should be misled, in other words, either by the Christmas decorations in downtown Moscow, or the gloss of self-assurance that sometimes drips off the Russian elite, nowadays, when they travel abroad: Who the Russians are, what Russia will become, what role Russia will play in the 21st century — these are questions still to be resolved. The damage done by the Soviet Union has yet to be repaired. Which is not say it won’t be: Here’s hoping that sometime in the new year, or any one of the new years that follow, the Russians work out their own, Russian way to celebrate Christmas.