Saturday, December 25, 2010

An un-Orthodox Christmas

I’m interrupting my no-coat-in-Russia post to bring you a live report on Christmas in St. Petersburg.  It’s nearly midnight, and my Christmas is coming to a close eight-to-eleven hours ahead of Christmas celebrations happening back at home.  It seems like a good time to post about Christmas in Russia, so here goes. 

It was beginning to look a lot like Christmas in the run up to my Christmas Eve over here.  I call it “my Christmas Eve” because, in Russia, “their Christmas Eve” – the Russian Orthodox one – is celebrated according to the Julian calendar on January 6, with Christmas Day following on the 7th.  Thankfully the Russians decorate early just like we do, so I spent the last two weeks admiring the lights and trees around town with the Christmas tunes on my I-shuffle complimenting the wintry surroundings.

Then December 24th rolled around and it turned out to be just another day in Russia.  Suddenly the absence of the many things that make Christmas “Christmas” started to hit me hard.  There was no Jimmy Stewart or Rudolph or Charlie Brown or Grinch.  No last-minute dash to the mall; no gift-wrapping frenzy; not even an ounce of the Christmas stress I love to hate.  And worst of all—my family was celebrating in and around the other St. Petersburg—the one in Florida—more than 5,000 miles away.

My Christmas Eve had come in Russia without anyone seeming to notice, but I was determined to press on with the celebration.  I spent the better part of the morning confirming that Russians don’t drink eggnog; in fact, they’ve never heard of such a thing as people drinking a sweet-creamy-egg concoction from a glass.  In the afternoon I wandered the streets in search of something—anything—familiar and preferably American.  I spotted the Golden Arches down a side street and high-tailed it in for a Christmas-Eve cheeseburger and fries.   I felt much better afterward, but I still missed Christmas terribly.

During the day I learned that some Protestants in town were holding a 6:00 p.m. candlelight service at the Lutheran Church of Saint Peter and Paul down the street from my hostel.  It sounded much like some of my Christmas Eves past, so I decided to go.  I turned up to find that the service was all in German, of course, and my quest for the familiar was foiled again.  But somewhere toward the end, I observed two young persons on the altar dressed unmistakably like Joseph and Mary.  They picked up a swaddled baby from a manger, showed him off to some wise men, and just like that it finally felt like Christmas Eve on my Christmas Eve.

I left the church gripped by a newfound Christmas spirit and hurried to a local shopping center to pick up some last-minute gifts for the four women who run my hostel.  I had earlier bought four crinkly-plastic traditional Christmas bags and, when I got “home,” I placed in each one some Christmas candies, a bag of sunflower seeds (their favorite), and a new hair scrunchy, then tied each one with a red ribbon for placement under the tree.  I passed the rest of the evening eating traditional-Ossetian leftovers with newfound friends at the hostel, before hitting the sack in anticipation of a very different Christmas morning.

It turned out to be a glorious one thanks in part to my sister and Western Union.  Earlier in the week I had told my sister of my desire to have a cappuccino at the nearby Grand Hotel Europe—which is very grand indeed—but at 250 rubles ($8-plus US), a cappuccino there was simply out of my price range.  My sister would have none of this talk, so she wired money to me in Russia and insisted that I go have a Christmas cappuccino on her, and while I was at it, I should bring along my Scottish roommate, Janine.  And that’s how Janine and I spent the better part of an hour on this not-really-Christmas-in-Russia-morning:  luxuriating in the Grand Hotel Europe’s Mezzanine Café, sipping vanilla cappuccinos before a delightful fire, and expressing gratitude for both the company and my sister’s generosity.

We exited the hotel to a blanketed-white Christmas—complete with falling snowflakes—bound for the world-renowned Marinsky Theater.  We had tickets for Peter Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker, which by chance opened here on “our” Christmas Day.  According to the program, The Nutcracker made its debut at this very opera house in 1892, and now, 118 years later, Janine and I sat watching the ballerinas twirl to well-known sounds of the season.   During intermission we sipped dry champagne and nibbled smoked-salmon toasts, feeling generally pleased with how our Christmas Day had gone thus far, despite being so very far from home.

I’m now inside the warm hostel, wearing a pair of Happy Holidays Christmas-kitty socks (another gift from my sister), and I’ve just savored a candy-cane flavored Tootsie pop that I stowed in my backpack for this very occasion.  Janine and I have been making our rounds of Christmas calls to back home on Skype.  And, just when we thought Christmas was over, a farewell party for a Russian army surgeon and his wife broke out in the common area, along with a traditional Russian meat pie, an apple-and-almond strudel, Italian red wine, and some black tea.

Yes, come to think of it, this un-Orthodox, non-Christmas in Russia turned out to be much better than expected.  Really even seriously cool.  But I really do miss the eggnog, and of course all of you.