Street Life: Samotechny Lane, Moscow - Ringing in the new, without those sprouts

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The Independent Online
"DECK the halls with boughs of holly, fah-la-la-la-la-la-la-la- la."

I have just been to the Christmas tree market here in Samotechny Lane and come home with a fine fir.

"Tis the season to be jolly ..."

My freezer is packed with sprouts from the supermarket. Everybody hates them, I know, but they are part of the sacred tradition.

"Jingle bells, jingle bells ..."

On the Silver Rain radio station, Vladimir Solovyov, who spent some time in the United States, is teaching his Russian listeners Christmas carols.

As a Western Christian, I do not feel so lonely in Moscow this Christmas, for some Russians are beginning to celebrate what they call "Chreestmas", as well as their own holiday in early January.

In communist times, the Soviet Union used to be the perfect place for Scrooges to seek asylum from merriment. December 25 was just another ordinary working day. Catholics and Protestants in the occupied Baltic states had to clock in at their factories and could only celebrate Christmas in secret at home in the evening.

In Moscow, the fir tree market opened pointedly on the eve of New Year, when Western Christmas was over. I remember one year making do with a bunch of culinary bay leaves and a twist of tinsel instead of a proper tree. And you could not get sprouts for love nor money.

Now, our Christmas traditions are becoming popular here, at least with the Western-leaning middle classes. "We Russians like parties," said Sasha, an accountant, who came with his wife, Lena, for a Christmas meal at Samotechny Lane. "If we can swallow the contradiction of celebrating the October Revolution and Boris Yeltsin's Constitution Day, then it's not difficult for us to add another Christmas to our repertoire. Thanks, I won't have any more of those Brussels sprouts but those mince pies look nice."

And so begins a marathon period of feasting that takes us from Western Christmas to New Year to Rozhdestvo, or Russian Orthodox Christmas, from 6-7 January to the night of 13-14 January, which is "Old New Year" according to the pre-revolutionary calendar. For most Russians, the new year holiday that they learnt to love in Soviet childhood retains the strongest magic.

"We had never heard of Christmas then," said Sasha. "Even our own Rozhdestvo was a low-key affair because the communists did not encourage the Orthodox church. But we always celebrated New Year with a bang. We had champagne and salad and watched With Light Steam and Blue Flame. If we were lucky, we would see some Western pop groups like Boney M."

Not much has changed. Blue Flame, a variety show best compared to the BBC's old Christmas Night With the Stars, has yielded to cooler pop music.

But year after year, when the champagne corks had popped, Russians settled down to enjoy With Light Steam, their favourite comedy about a man who gets drunk at the banya (steam bath) and ends up by mistake spending New Year in someone else's flat.

It is still too early to slump in front of the TV, however. This week Russians are doing their new year shopping. Housewives are stocking up on beetroot and walnuts, salmon, tinned peas and mayonnaise for their traditional salad. There was a panic some weeks ago when the authorities banned the sale of alcohol on street markets as too many people had been poisoned by polluted vodka. But state-run shops appear to be coping with the demand for champagne, at least in Moscow.

On Sunday, Muscovites were also wandering among the kiosks in the city centre, looking for presents. It will be a thin new year because of the economic crisis. "Madness," said a woman when she saw the prices of nothing more extravagant than bars of white chocolate. "Those of a nervous disposition are advised not to window shop," joked the old man behind her.

New year here is still less commercial than Christmas in the West. Poor Russians usually give or receive only one present. There is a simplicity about it that we have lost.

Popular gifts this year are little glass rabbits, selling for 15 roubles (50p), for 1999 will be the Chinese Year of the Rabbit. Alongside Western traditions, Russians have also adopted the Chinese and are hoping that the peaceable rabbit will bring them better luck than the outgoing tiger that proved so harsh to them in 1998.