Glum Russia celebrates with fake firs

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Russia has the largest coniferous forest in the world, which stretches from Europe to the Pacific and contains half the planet's reserves of softwood timber. Why, then, is this leafy nation abandoning the Christmas tree?

As Russians retreat into the thick of their holiday season and prepare for the Orthodox Christmas on Wednesday, the yolka has been ousted from the living-rooms of many. In its place stand what Izvestia has thunderously condemned as "artificial Chinese trash". Fakes are surplanting firs; pre-decorated plastic beats pine.

Gone are the days when axe-carrying Russians poured out of the cities to the snow-bound woods to cut down trees in such numbers that the police used to patrol trains and buses demanding that tree-bearers produce a receipt or pay a fine.

Ten years ago, 1.5 million fir trees were sold in Moscow alone in the run-up to New Year's Eve, the main holiday for which the trees are bought. That figure is slumped last year to 157,000, and this year is expected to be lower.

The yolka was introduced by Peter the Great on his return from his tour of Britain and the rest of Europe in 1699; but, as its 300th anniversary approaches, the tradition is beginning to wither like an old pot plant.

The reasons are several: the appeal of fake trees, which can be used repeatedly; the state-run forestry companies seeing their subsidies dry up and cutting back on seeding; and, after painful years attempting transition to a market economy, the population not being in a celebratory mood.

The situation is complicated by their clouded view of what the Christmas season represents in today's Russia. After the Bolshevik Revolution, the Communist Party adroitly redefined its religious symbolism, transferring the emphasis to New Year. Decorations became a vehicle for honouring the icons and aspirations of the atheist state. At the height of the obsession with aviation under Stalin, cardboard aeroplanes dangled from the branches. When the Soviets first launched the Sputnik satellite in 1957, a large replica became a popular trinket for the tree.

The star on the top of the tree no longer represented the one that guided the three wise men to Bethlehem, but the red star that glowed from the turrets of the Kremlin. Rare fruits and vegetables - including eggplants and cucumbers - began to be used as decorations. So too did a bright- pink glass pylon, honouring Lenin's call for electrification across the land.

Today, Western-style decorations and rituals mingle with the home- grown, much to the despair of nationalists and traditionalists. Even Russia's version of Santa Claus - Ded Moroz (Grandfather Frost) - is on the run. After gloomily announcing that "the majority of Muscovites will celebrate the New Year under artificial fir trees", Izvestia claimed that Moscow's homes this year will be decorated with Chinese-made Santas who are (somewhat mysteriously) wearing spectacles; it seems you just can't buy a decent Russian-made Ded Moroz.

Pravda was still more dewy-eyed and indignant: it bewailed the presence of Santa "in an expensive, well-lit shop where his power is unlimited and there is no place for my dear Russian Ded Moroz in a fur coat andvalenki", (Russia's woollen answer to the Wellington boot).

The implication is that Santa is an arrogant Western invader, a complacent fatty who - with his short red coat (Ded Moroz wears a long fur one) - doesn't even know how to dress for the Russian winter. What with him and Nato expansion, it's been a pretty rough year.