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I lived under Soviet Communism and it taught me to love Christmas


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Growing up in Soviet Russia, I didn’t know what Christmas was, let alone celebrate it. However, every winter we celebrated the biggest holiday of the year – the New Year. Throughout the country, between the end of December and the middle of January, big festivities took place in schools, kindergartens , universities and workplaces, with songs, dances and lavish decorations.

For a few weeks each year, you are transported from an otherwise harsh and dreary Soviet reality into the magic of holiday cheer, complete with fireworks, marching bands, streetlights and firecrackers. The centerpiece of the holiday was the New Year’s pine tree (Yolka) which decorated every home and workplace.

My sister and I savored the time when we helped our mother decorate a freshly cut Yolka that our father brought home with ornaments. And we couldn’t wait to go to mum’s place of work to dance a khorovod around the illuminated tree and get a translucent bag full of sweets and a tangerine – a great rarity at the time, especially in winter – from a bushy eyebrow and a long-bearded Grandpa Frost and his granddaughter Snowgirl. It was a fairy tale that came true, even if only for a few days.

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What I didn’t realize until my early twenties was that the Soviet government had indeed fed us a fairy tale. During my fourth year of university, I was one of the few students sent on an exchange program in London. In December, to my amazement, I learned that the British were celebrating something called Christmas, with a Yolka called a Christmas tree and a Grandpa Frost called Santa Claus, but without the lovely granddaughter . Instead, he had a sweetly innocent reindeer, Rudolph. On December 24 and 25, the British also went to church and sang Christmas carols. They spoke of the birth of Jesus Christ as the reason for the celebration. It was as much a shock to me at 22 as it was to my American children who learned that Santa Claus didn’t exist.

Russian Orthodox Patriarch Cyril delivers the Christmas liturgy at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow, Russia, Thursday, January 6, 2022.
(AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

That year, I learned that Grandfather Frost and Snowgirl were Soviet inventions designed to suppress the religion of the Christmas holiday that was celebrated in Imperial Russia until 1918 when the Bolsheviks took power, killed the Tsar and pronounced atheism as the state religion, with hammer and sickle replacing the cross.

After declaring that religion was “the opium of the masses”, the new proletarian regime decided that the state, not God, was the provider of all human rights and that Vladimir Lenin, the revolutionary leader, was to be adored, with his portraits hanging on every wall and decorating the children’s first reading book.

Lenin, with the stroke of a pen, canceled Christmas and, indeed, all religious observance, by signing a decree on February 8, 1918, “On the introduction of a Western European calendar into the Russian Republic”. Until then, Russia followed an Orthodox Julian calendar and celebrated Christmas, which it called the “Birth of Christ”, Rozhdestvo Khristovo. Lenin’s decree switched Russia to the Gregorian calendar, which is 13 days ahead of the Julian calendar. Rozhdestvo Khristovo completely disappeared from the calendar, making December 25, 1917 the day of the last Russian Christmas celebration. Today, post-Soviet Russia celebrates Orthodox Christmas on January 7, but the New Year remains the biggest holiday of the year.

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Since my arrival, I have savored 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 converted to my husband’s faith, Judaism. So we put up a menorah and lit candles to celebrate Hanukkah.

My sister – who recently confided to me that she didn’t know Christmas either before leaving Russia – has a Christmas tree in her house in America. She even goes to church, although we were brought up with no religion, having shared with me that our grandmother secretly baptized us when we were babies. Our parents kept it a secret, so as not to arouse suspicion about our family with the Soviet authorities.

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I am saddened that America is increasingly secularized. Research indicates that a quarter of Americans now have a secular worldview and that three in 10 adults are unaffiliated with a religion.

I know the feeling of emptiness that can fill your soul if you don’t believe that there is another being watching over you and guiding you, especially in difficult times. I know what happens when you let the state become your religion. Soon he begins to perceive himself as the Almighty himself, imposing his control over all aspects of your life. I hope my American children will never be forced to worship the government. Here’s Merry Christmas! No cookies by the fireplace for Grandpa Frost.

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