Previously in Atlantic Abroad
For more, see the complete Atlantic Abroad Index.
Share your tales of life abroad in Post & Riposte.
January 6, 1998
Every day I set out to run errands in central Moscow, and this affords me a chance to see how the city is preparing for the holiday season. On one recent march I discover that near my apartment a yolochny bazar, or evergreen market, has sprung up. A hulking young man stands by a dozen trees, rubbing his mittened hands together, snorting through plugged nostrils, and spitting into the snow. I stop and examine his pines: they are only four or five feet high, but they would do as the traditional New Year's tree in any apartment here. Since the 1917 revolution, the biggest holiday of the year for most Russians has been New Year's Eve. (Russians so love the frosty fête, in fact, that they celebrate it twice, starting with the "new" New Year's, by the Gregorian Calendar, on January first, then moving on to the "old" New Year's, by the Julian Calendar, on January thirteenth.) A New Year's tree is put up for the children and presents are laid around the base.
The tree salesman looks antsy. Selling yolki is big business now -- maybe the mafia will be stopping by soon for its cut, or maybe he is a mafiozo himself. A BMW swishes through the slush and its trunk, activated by an inside lever, swings open. The salesman leans over the window.
"Which tree you want?"
"Gimme that runty one!" a hoarse voice barks from the car window.
The salesman spits, yanks a tree off the ground, and hurls it into the trunk. Looking both ways, he takes the money, and the car peels out.
I enter the supermarket that sits behind the salesman. A red-suited round-bellied fellow with a floppy hat and long white detachable beard stands in the vestibule smoking a Marlboro through gritted teeth. He is supposed to be Ded Moroz, or Grandfather Frost. Ded Moroz's fairy companion, Snegurochka, is off today, and alone Ded Moroz looks like a loiterer, shifting from foot to foot and ho-ho-hoing in bored tones when children walk by. If his holiday cheer is a bit forced, it's not surprising: the mayor of Moscow issued a decree essentially ordering all businesses to deck their halls with boughs of holly -- or face the (administrative) consequences.
After buying what I need I move on to Sberbank (the Russian State Savings Bank) to pay my phone bill. There I discover a line of middle-aged men and women in bulky parkas and fur hats, clutching their red-jacketed internal passports and tattered labor books. It is pension day. In view of the combination of holiday season and economic crisis, it should be a sad pension day: pensioners have been among the hardest-hit by the recent troubles.
However, in the line next to mine are two men in their early sixties. Although both have the raw faces and gnarled knuckles of longtime manual laborers, they look anything but depressed.
"We had a decent year at the dacha," says one, whose red cheeks give him the look of a proletarian cherub. "Beets, potatoes, cucumbers. So that takes care of the zakuski (hors d'oeuvres)."
The second man receives his pension from the cashier and begins counting his rubles. "There. That'll buy enough vypivka (booze) to last us until Old New Year's day."
"To say nothing of New New Year's, Constitution Day, Vasya's birthday party..."
I pay my bill and leave the bank, needing to buy mineral water. In the tinsel-decorated store nearby, marked JUICES WINES SOFT DRINKS, I find the trade heavy, crisis or no. A middle-aged man is standing at the counter comparing two vodka bottles, peering through his bifocals at the festive script on the labels, and reading aloud the vital data: potency, place of bottling, flavor (mint and citrus). He has other bottles lined up in a row. He taps each one. "Constitution Day, Rozhdestvo [orthodox Christmas], New Year's, Old New Year's. That'll do."
"What about Kreesmas?" the saleswoman asks, adjusting her white chef's hat.
"Well, okay, add one bottle."
Kreesmas is, of course, the russified pronunciation of the English holiday. But Christmas by any other name is not necessarily Christmas. With its flimsy consonants and sibilant vowels, Kreesmas suggests to Russian ears something insubstantial -- a foreign ritual performed by frivolous folk somewhere beyond the bounds of the Motherland, but why not celebrate it by pounding down the vodka? I don't ask the man if he would drink on Rozhdestvo, his Christmas. Rozhdestvo is traditionally a sober religious event involving attendance at church, chanted hymns, and Biblical verses read in sonorous Old Slavonic.
I buy my mineral water. I walk outside and start on my way home. Across the street by a currency-exchange bureau a guard in camouflage uniform is changing the rate of the ruble against the dollar on a plastic placard, and a dozen or so people are waiting their turns outside the steel door. I'm reminded of the economic crisis again, and the stoic way most Russians have received it. They regard collapse, arbitrary misrule, and national calamity as constants -- only prosperity is mistrusted. With this weltanshauung there is always a reason to celebrate -- all is lost, anyway, so one might as well make merry till the tragic end. These people, with shopping bags stuffed with bottles, are preparing to do just that, and soon I will join them.
Jeffrey Tayler is a freelance writer and traveler based in Moscow. He has recently written on Greece, Moscow, Siberia, Transylvania, and Zaire for The Atlantic Monthly. He contributes regularly to Atlantic Abroad.
Share your thoughts on Atlantic Abroad in Post & Riposte.
Copyright © 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.