HOLIDAY REFLECTIONS FROM RUSSIA

BF6175A4-1B51-4D90-8EDB-D1F0A345695BToday is one of those days I am more aware of the practical differences in my two worlds than usual. I thought it may be interesting to some readers to learn more of the differences in the American and Russian cultures at this wonderful time of year. As I write this blog entry it is the day before Christmas Eve in my home country. Given that it is also a Saturday, I am quite sure when the day dawns over my world eight time zones away that there will be much busy-ness. Some cooking; some cleaning; some shopping—no, a LOT of shopping! No doubt folks are getting ready for the day that for many over there is the biggest day of the year. My unofficial, but highly scientific, research, i.e., looking at my friends’ Facebook posts, indicates that while some are glad for the relatively warm weather predicted, the majority of people in South Carolina are lamenting another non-white Christmas. I remember all those times growing up wherein it seemed every Christmas movie showed it magically snowing just in time for Christmas. Every year I kept looking. The Russians have a saying which would be an appropriate description of my annual scanning of the southern skies in my homeland for any indication of just a few falling flakes: “Надежда умирает последней” [“Hope dies last”].

Here in my other world the snow is already a reality. There is plenty on the ground and more significant snow predicted this evening. The chance of a white Christmas is very high—except Monday is not Christmas in this world. Come Monday (as Jimmy Buffett would say), I will be teaching a class. By the time most children in America will wake up Monday with great joy in the anticipation of what they will find under the tree, our nine year old Gabriel will have already completed a full day of classes at School #5.

One of my responsibilities as the “English Consultant” at our school is to give presentations to several classes on what Christmas is like in America. It is supposed to help them linguistically and also to enable them to be more “culturally aware” of life in the West. They already have some general ideas gained largely from movies they have seen from Hollywood. Of course, they’ve watched them in Russian so they don’t know the specific terms we use for some things. Further, their knowledge is fragmentary. So this week I’ve tried to bring together in some kind of meaningful narrative the elements of Christmas like baby Jesus, Santa Claus, gifts, shopping, reindeer, shepherds, and then explaining what a stable is because I couldn’t remember the Russian word. I also try to explain the extreme importance of decorations and lights to Americans, as parodied in the movie “Christmas Vacation.” It wasn’t easy. I decided not to bring up the fact that in our former neighborhood the leadership committee actually gives an award to the family with the official “Best Decorated Yard.”

I’m not sure my explanations were clear, partly because the kids didn’t speak much or ask questions at the end. Did they not ask questions because they understood everything or because they understood nothing? On the other hand, since I don’t teach these students regularly it could be the normal reluctance to risk speaking to a native English speaker. When I started the first class I asked them how they were, and a young lady in the front row said, “We’re scared!” But several thanked me when leaving and the regular teacher seemed pleased, so I’m hopeful they left more culturally and linguistically informed than when we started.

On the other hand, I want to communicate to my American readers the fact that Russia still has great holidays, and New Years Day is probably the biggest one. Seventy years of Communism took a toll on the celebration of Рождество [Christmas] in Russia. The transition was slow and mistakes were made, but the Communists were eventually largely successful in transferring many of the traditions of Christmas to New Years. So we have a New Years Tree here. We also have Santa’s “cousin,” Ded Moroz (Grandfather Frost). There is also the sharing of gifts of various sorts, although here in Luga the atmosphere in the streets is nothing like the madhouse the parking lot at a Mall in Greenville, S.C. could, and usually did, become.

New Years is also a time when families and close friends get together and share a meal. There are usually numerous salads and then several courses of foods. One difference in these special meals is that whereas in America everything is put on the table at once, in Russia the hostess usually brings in the separate courses as the meal progresses. More than once I just knew the meal was over, and then Oksana’s mom would bring out another meat and vegetable plate. Then at midnight we watch the President’s speech on TV. For Oksana’s family it is always an important time. It’s a bit like a “State of the Union” speech an American president gives from time to time, although I never remember an American president giving a speech on New Years night. Then there are fireworks and a general feeling of celebration just like in America. Further, schools are out and many folks have off from work until after January 9.

Russian Christmas is January 7. Before Communism Russia was on the Julian Calendar, which was observed at the time of Jesus. After Pope Gregory XIII introduced what became known as the Gregorian calendar in 1582 the process of changing over began all over the world. Russia did not adopt the “new calendar” until 1918, which was much later than Western countries. Even the Orthodox Church in America celebrates Christmas on December 25. The Russian Orthodox Church still observes the “old style” calendar, which is about 13 days “behind” the new style. Thus, since Christmas is a religious holiday, it is observed on what would be Christmas under the Julian calendar. New Years Eve would be January 13 according the old calendar, but since that is not a religious holiday it essentially makes no difference here. So by the time it is Christmas in Russia all the shopping has been done, and the gifts have been put away.

So what does our family do? Last year was our first Christmas away from America. Since it was on a Sunday, the boys did not have to go to school anyway, we observed it the best we could. This year Roman has classes in St. Petersburg and, as I said, Gabriel will have to go to school. Sadly, there comes a time to let go of the “old life.” We still sing a few Christmas carols, and we try to keep the memory of Christmas in America alive for the kids. The truth is, however, we really have little desire to try to “recreate” an American Christmas experience here. It just seems a bit hollow. We will participate in the festivities of New Years with our Russian family and friends. We’ll enjoy the meal with Oksana’s parents, and the fireworks. Then on the evening of January 6 we will go to our Russian Orthodox Church for the Vigil celebrating the Incarnation.

We will greatly miss our family and friends in South Carolina Monday. We’ll see photos and Facebook posts of so many getting together, and we will remember our years there and the big meals, the presents, and the good laughter of those times. Somehow, however, we all have become more accustomed to our life here. We will have opportunity to spend more time together as a family. I hope to have time to get some more reading and research done for a serious political blog I’m hoping to write. Our three children will get to spend more time with each other. And we hope to make a trip to St. Petersburg for at least a couple of days. We’ve celebrated these holidays in both of our “worlds,” and we are thankful for all the tradtions that have helped us become the family we are.

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9 thoughts on “HOLIDAY REFLECTIONS FROM RUSSIA

  1. Hal, I enjoyed your blog (as usual!). I hate the commercialism that is involved with our Christmas celebration. It goes hand in hand with the materialistic attitude that we have taken on. Yesterday, a teenager asked me if the our goal should be the accumulation of wealth and things and I said heavens no! I don’t think most young people know enough about life to even ask a question like that. It is sad! Although I do not envy the cold climate that you live in, I laud the decision that you made to move to Oksana’s homeland and think that it probably is the best thing that you could have done for your children! God bless you and your family…Dick

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  2. Thanks Dick! I’m glad for what you wrote because your point is an important one. Since Christmas here is a holiday after all the “commercial” stuff of New Years, it makes it more meaningful and worshipful for us. It is just so hard in America to keep the focus where it should be! The culture just sweeps you up in it. I’ve adjusted pretty well to the cold. My walking has helped me get used to it, so, yes, it has been a good decision for us.

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  3. Hello Andrey! Merry Christmas to you! I just got in from teaching. I will have to watch the comedian. Thank you for sending it, and I hope you have a great New Years as well!

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  4. Hi, Oksana!
    You could try to not just click on the link, but copy it completely, including ….html at the end and then paste it into a new tab

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  5. Hal, greetings from St. Louis, Missouri, and an early с новым годом! to you. I love your blog! I’m an Orthodox homeschooling dad trying my best to in some ways “russify” my own family and children here in the States. My wife and I converted while we were engaged some 14 years ago, and having children really impressed upon me the need for them to have an Orthodox culture’s resources to help them stay faithful throughout their lives to the Church. To that end, I’m hoping to help teach them Russian as I myself continue to learn.

    We belong to a Russian Church here and have several very close family friends (and spiritual family) who are native speakers. Other than that, do you have strategies for systematic study and mastery?

    I have often thought that if things were to get too terribly bad here in the United States, that I would try to move them to Russia. I certainly want to visit there regularly, even if we don’t end up living there. I was with a choral masterclass under Vladimir Gorbik in Moscow a couple of years ago. What a place! Certainly, this wasn’t “small town” life, but the people were wonderful, the churches were breath-taking, the experience indescribable. To be able to chant the vigil and Divine Liturgy at the Moscow podvorye of the Trinity-Sergius Lavra was one of the true highlights of my life.

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    • Greetings in Christ! Thank you for your kind words. Glad you enjoy the blog. I read your last entry as well. I want to follow. Great what you are doing with your children. Yes, Moscow is a BIT different from Luga! 🙂 That must have been quite an experience. My wife and I were chrismated at an OCA church in S.C. a bit over two years ago. I was raised a Southern Baptist preacher’s kid and ended up teaching in a Baptist University for 14 years. My wife, as you probably could tell, is Russian, and she was raised in a Communist family. We loved our Orthodox Church in S.C. and love the Russian Orthodox Church in the nearby village we attend here. Wonderful group!
      I am probably not the person to ask about the best way to systematically study Russian! We lived in St. Petersburg for 3 years and picked up some. Then we moved to America for 8 years. When I realized I had pretty much lost what I had learned I went thru Pimsleur’s 3 units. It was good for what I needed. I continued to study it on my own for some years now. But it has been a struggle. Full time job there; three kids; but I persevered. I have recently started taking the Red Kalinka video course. It actually is working very well for me. I already know the vocabulary and most of the material in these first lessons. But I am forcing myself to go thru the basics, and I have picked up things I really did not get before. I’m semi-retired now, and I spend a lot of time keeping our kids. We have a 3 year old daughter and really the video course works well because I can stop it anytime and pick it up whenever she is napping or whatever. I am very hesitant to recommend things, because my experience in learning Russian is certainly atypical. But this course is helping me to be systematic in a way I have not been able to beforehand.
      You mentioned a possible move to Russia in the future. If you ever have questions or anything you want to “bounce” off me feel free. (I don’t get much chance to talk to Americans so I sure don’t mind!!!) The move was difficult because we loved our friends, our church, our family in the U.S. (Oksana became a part of my family so easily.) But we have no doubt this was the right move for us. The culture is so different here. It is not perfect! But it is stable and the Russian Orthodox Church is becoming stronger consistently. Of course every family has different needs and gifts. But, as I said, I’ll be honest with you about the good, the bad, and the ugly! Blessings to you!

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