My wife and I knew that things would be different, different than back home, but especially different from how they’d once been here in Russia. Though Moscow is the city with the most billionaires, home of world icons like St. Basil’s Cathedral and the Kremlin, I grew up in the USA at the tail end of the Cold War, leaving me with lingering thoughts of bread lines, high-kicking soldiers, and avenues of war tanks. I had never really thought about Christmas and New Year’s in Russia at all — until now.
There is No Santa Claus
In Russia, Grandfather Frost, as legend tells it, delivers his presents on the sly during the New Year’s Eve festivities, undetected in and out of Russian residences, a flurry of gifts for the good girls and boys.
Ever at his side is his granddaughter, the Snow Maiden, whose function my Russian English students could only explain is to help her grandfather, noting the she is not a toy-making elf, so any child-labor concerns could dissipate there. When I asked how Grandfather Frost gets around, whether or not he was a sleigh driver, my students reported that transportation had never been discussed.
Mr. Frost looks familiar—a ZZ Top beard, a regal robe with furry cuffs, matching pant, and a funny hat—but, also known as Ded Moroz, he first appeared as a mythical god of weather with a penchant for freezing children and using his sack to kidnap them.
In later life, his wicked ways changed into friendlier traits. By the end of the 1800s, Grandfather Frost became the national icon of the New Year’s celebration in Russia.
Dressed in blue, specifically not red, it was he who ribbon-wrapped joy throughout the Eastern European countries that composed the Soviet Bloc.
Santa Claus and Grandfather Frost go about their tasks of seasonal cheer with their own respective techniques. While Santa lounges about in shopping malls, letting children unleash lists of requests, posing for photos, not once did I see Grandfather Frost talking toys, nor did he fill the air of the GUM with ho-ho-hos.
On delivery day, Santa dictates bedtimes and demands patience, but Frost sneaks in mid-party, not a bell jingling or rooftop clattering. Children in Russia can rip into their gifts right away, no curfew. Here, the party continues well past midnight.
A close second to presents is all those delicious treats. On the 25th of December, my wife Emma and I had upheld our own cultural responsibilities, doing Christmas right, stockings stuffed with goodies, the house engulfed in the smell of yuletide cookery. Sage and onion filled our one-room abode, the sweet aroma of mulled wine danced about the tops of our glasses.
We filled our plates beyond capacity, ate everything gravy-laced, mixing flavors, textures, apple sauce and mashed potatoes. Few things encapsulate Christmas as decisively as the traditional dinner.
Russia has its traditional foods as well: Oliviye, a mutant potato salad where the simple spud-mayo mixture moves into the realms of diced meat, salted fish, and boiled carrots, takes the centerpiece of the Russian seasonal table.
Around it are the ceremonious bursts of caviar, a rather daring cream cheese spread infused with mashed raw garlic, as well as the more familiar favorites: mandarin oranges, nuts, cookies, and cakes.
Gingerbread abounds. Then, in a long stretch of the local market, pineapples have somehow emerged as another Christmas favorite.
To capture the national spirit, we did our best to create these holiday favorites. Needless to say, it was not the same explosion of smells that we identify as intrinsically festive. The allotment is mayonnaise-laced, creamy and carb-heavy, but we addressed it with the same stomach-bulging recklessness as we had stuffing and pie.
Then, when things digested a bit, it was time to go back for more. The whole eclectic buffet washed down with the very beloved Russian champagne, which is second only to vodka in popularity.
Red Square or White Christmas?
Snow had fallen on cue the entire week before our Christmas, coating the world in white, but the following week, temperatures spiked upwards, jumping above freezing for a couple of days, long enough to decimate the snow population in Moscow.
Many of my students had expressed their hatred for the Russian winter, the bitter cold, the bolstering blasts, but as the holiday approached, so did disappointment. It was a sad sight, the beautiful white December Christmas turning to muddy slush and dirty heaps of snow-matter at the sides of the pavements.
Not a soul was out sledding or rolling up ammunition for friendly snow battles when Emma and I left our apartment at about 10 pm, heading out to see the famous New Year’s countdown in front of St. Basil’s, the famous cathedral that dominates Red Square in Moscow.
Families in our neighborhood were sitting snug behind high-rising stacks of radiant windows, but downtown teemed. People packed into ramshackle lines, filing through metal detectors before entering the streets around Red Square. The horde pulsed with aimless electricity, stunned and screaming, especially those directly behind us, wherever we stood.
Stopped by a caravan of military trucks and accompanying fleet of arm-in-arm soldiers, Emma and I waded away from Red Square and settled beneath a street clock across from the national history museum.
A backpack-wielding partier behind me twisted and howled, his bag beating me senseless. At about five minutes to the hour, the crowd began to erupt into cheers every twenty seconds or so, until ultimately, without even a ten-to-one countdown to the New Year, the crucial moment slipped by in errant, ill-timed ovations. Barely a kiss passed between Emma and me.
Out Walking After Midnight
From our vantage point, fireworks struggled to clear the height of the buildings of the square, and ultimately, pushed, brushed, and bumped enough, we shrugged the whole thing off. We wriggled our way through the crowd and onto Tverskoy Ulitsa, a wide avenue usually chockablock with cars but made pedestrian for the night.
With no idea how to get back to our Metro station, police blockades cordoning off the side streets in either direction, we just pitched in and joined a most revered Russian New Year’s activity: taking an aimless walk after midnight.
Spirits were high as people strolled along beneath strings of lights, no way to go but forward, so we all took an unusual walking tour of a city notorious for its traffic and expansive roads.
Some ways down the boulevard, a stage had been erected so that Russian pop stars could perform. A crowd formed in front of them while entering, and exiting strollers stretched endlessly from either side, military personnel eagle-eyeing every corner.
Even so, the city had a warm calm about it, something I’d not felt here: For a moment, the striving for modernity had given way to tradition.
When we reached Pushkin Station, we caught a train back home. On board, a co-ed group of twenty-somethings played games, interlacing their arms and tapping out rhythms on each other’s knees. I watched them do it for nearly an hour.
Then, climbing the stairs of the exit, we discovered that the city had been blanketed in white, snow still trickling down from a sky set alight with pyrotechnics. Families had come out. Children were taking to the slopes of our local park. Russian “Christmas” had become official: Grandfather Frost had returned.
About the author: Jonathon Engels, formerly a tight-lipped international observer, now reveals his secrets in a multitude of musings, his subjects ranging from a lack of public restrooms in England to the abundance of port-o-loos in Moscow, as well as other non-toilet related humor. A patron saint of misadventure, Jonathon has been stumbling his way across cultural borders since 2005 and currently resides in Moscow, Russia. For more of his work, visit his website and blog.