As I write this, it’s the day after boxing day according to the Julian calendar. Russians were banned from celebrating religious festivals under communism, but did that stop them? Of course not!
There are bound to be some who follow the letter of any law, no matter how absurd that law may be, but Soviet interlopers attempting to rewire the core belief system of the proletariat had an uphill struggle. Revolutionaries, whilst good at whipping up a storm and breaking things, are not necessarily capable politicians, let alone, adept theological manipulators.
A collective soul
That’s the core of the Russian Christmas, theology, and family too. Our commercialised extravaganza pays ever-diminishing lip-service to Christianity whilst worshipping at the altar of Mammon. Orthodoxy, by contrast, is still engrained in modern Russian life, normalised and casually mentioned (here’s my car keys and there’s my religion) without requiring further comment or remark. Here in our (British) society, it’s almost soft-segregation (oh, you’re one of those).
2000 years of Christianity could not erase paganism in the West, and instead had to be content with redressing, redirecting and relabelling the ceremonies, celebrations and deities of earlier beliefs. It even had to build its churches on ancient sacred sites; -because the population would still visit them to worship! Similarly, one lifespan’s worth of Communism had little chance of unseating 2 millennia of Christianity, how could it?
The Soviets came and went; soon to be a brief but turbulent flicker on history’s receding path. By how much had they prised Orthodoxy from the hearts and souls of the populace? Well, by no great amount.
Moscow’s magnificent Cathedral of Christ the Saviour was blown to rubble in 1931 in order to make way for the abandoned Palace of the Soviets, started it’s re-materialisation in 1990 with permission granted for reconstruction. A fund to finance the endeavour was established in 1992 following a drive by Mayor Yuri Luzhkov and the Russian Orthodox Church. By late 1994 money was flooding in from the wallets and bank accounts of a supportive public, and the new edifice, based loosely on the old but with modern amenities, was finished in 2000. Today, it is something of a focal point as midnight Christmas eve mass is broadcast to the nation, for those who aren’t attending their own local services.
A not so “Merry Xmas”
From 1917 to 1991 Christmas did not officially, legally exist under the Soviet system, at least as we now know it. There was an initial concession of sorts: a Youth Communist League holiday held annually until 1928 when it was dropped, -having been unembraced by society at large.
In 1935, Stalin found compassion enough to allow the return of a festive pine tree into the homes of his subjects (a convention imported royally from Germany, incidentally). Topped with the Soviet red star, this was an appropriately future-facing New Year tree, -and decidedly not “Xmas”. Ded Moroz (Grandfather Frost) returned as figurehead, now accompanied by Snegurochka (The Snow Maiden) and “Xmas” was still absent.
Devotees of Orthodoxy still organised their Christmas ceremonies in secret however; in the darkened or isolated homes of brave and stubborn followers, in their exiled quarters, whilst under incarceration, wherever and however. And if caught by the authorities (the ‘Christmas police’?) they could lose their jobs, their freedom and even under the most draconian regulations: their lives.
Suddenly, in 1991 Christmas returned to Russia. The LA Times captured something of the moment:
“As part of … President Boris N. Yeltsin’s ambitious plan to revive the traditions of Old Russia, the republic’s legislature declared last month that Christmas …should be written back into the public calendar.
“The Bolsheviks replaced crosses with hammers and sickles,” said Vyacheslav S. Polosin, head of the Russian legislature’s committee on religion. “Now they are being changed back.”