My wife usually wakes up in a pretty good mood. After that first cup of coffee she can be even cheerful and chatty. But December 25 she woke up grumbling and coffee didn’t help. “This living between two worlds is rough at Christmas,” she muttered. In Russia, December 25 is just a normal day. She had to wake Gabriel and get him ready for school, and then she had to prepare to teach her two English classes in the afternoon. When Gabriel got up, things did not improve. He was almost 8 years old when we moved from America, so he clearly remembers December 25 as a day when every law-abiding 10-year-old should be able to stay home and enjoy gifts and eat Christmas cookies. Thus began our tension between the holidays of Russia and America.
I wrote about it last year, but I still get questions on why Russians celebrate Christmas on a different day than Americans. In 1582 Pope Gregory XIII introduced the calendar currently in use in most parts of the world. There were some slight differences in calculation which apparently made it more accurate. Jesus was born under the Julian calendar which had been put into effect in 45 B.C. While Russia, like most countries, eventually (1917) adopted the Gregorian calendar, the Russian Orthodox Church is a branch of Eastern Orthodoxy that did not go along. December 25 under the Julian calendar is January 7 on the Gregorian calendar. Hence, our American family and friends celebrate Christmas on a different day than those of us here in Russia.
There are other differences, as well as some similarities, in the way the holidays are celebrated. You cannot really replicate the American Christmas experience in Russia. Christmas in America is something almost the whole culture celebrates. Most people know it is the observance of the birth of Jesus, but a lot of people who are not Christians still celebrate it as a winter holiday. It’s a time of gift-giving and office parties for a lot of people of any faith or no faith. It is the biggest holiday of the year. I loved Christmas even during my years as an atheist. New Years is also a holiday, of course, but it is mainly limited to New Year’s Eve, when there are often parties, and January 1, when there is traditionally a big meal and a lot of football. Some of my American friends have already taken the Christmas tree down by the time the New Year arrives.
In Russia there are also lights, trees, and the exchange of gifts. Most of those things center around New Years Day, however. That is the time when gifts from Ded Moroz (Grandfather Frost) and his grand-daughter Snegurochka (Snow Maiden) are opened. The tree is a “New Years Tree.” Most families and friends have a big party on New Years Eve night. It is the biggest holiday of the year as far as I can tell. The kids are out of school from then until January 9. Also, most adults do not have to go to work during this time so the festive spirit lingers on after January 1.
Christmas here in Russia is a holy day set aside by the Church. It is a day of worship and reflection. In the last week of the “nativity fast” Orthodox believers are encouraged to spend more time in reflection and study as they prepare for January 7. In America we may casually talk about the “Christmas holidays.” In Russia “Christmas” refers specifically to the observance of the birth of Christ. The Russian word for “Christmas” (Рождество) is probably better translated “Nativity.”
So, I have been asked: What is the good and bad of spending this particular holiday season in Russia? First, as an Orthodox believer, I like the fact that Christmas remains specifically Christian. Everyone has New Years to party and celebrate with their families and close friends. That night is for the gifts, the parties, the tree, etc. Then the next week those us who are believers can gather in worship on Christmas. There is less internal stress when the focus is on Christmas as a time for devotion and reflection. I don’t mean it is completely somber. I write this the Saturday before Russian Christmas, and the kids at church are going to decorate the Sunday School room and even a tree outside the church with nativity ornaments. Obviously the downside is I miss gathering with my family and friends in America. Missing those meals and celebrations does not get any easier with the passing of time. This year was our third Christmas here, and I think it was the toughest emotionally for me.
I will venture a broader observation on the differences in this holiday time. At least for now, I do not believe that materialism has as strong a grip on Russian culture—at least small town Russian culture—as it does in America. By materialism I mean equating the “stuff” that we own with ultimate value in life whether we actually need it or not. Average Russians had to endure really tough economic times not many years ago. Most people here are old enough to remember what it was like to go to the store and not be able to get basic necessities. To me, while there are clearly exceptions, the average Russian does not require as much to feel that life is good as the average American. Further, most Russians I know do not labor under the kind of debt most Americans carry. Comparing household debt in Russia and America is a bit like the proverbial apples and oranges comparison. The economies are very different. I rarely come across a study that actually takes in consideration all the various factors. The so-called “standard of living” in America is higher, but I don’t think most Russians worry about that as much as most Americans. Again, all generalities fail in some details, but I speak as someone who has lived in small towns in both countries. Most American analysts have never lived here and seem out of touch with how to evaluate Russian life and attitudes toward money.
The Russian economy is improving, however. I have read reports that by 2020 things could look much better. If so, I wonder what impact it will have on this culture. Times of economic prosperity can mean other, more lasting, treasures and relationships get neglected. I hope this will not be the case in Russia. Oddly, I’m one of those who hopes that Russia will not emulate the West.
In the meantime I continue learning how to adjust to the different culture. I stepped back at the end of the year to think on the battles and blessings. The main obstacle remains the language. Learning to speak Russian better is just a part of my life here as far as I’m concerned. I envy some of my western friends. There are some who don’t speak Russian well (if at all) and really don’t worry about it. They can communicate in English with those they need to. They tell me they would like to speak Russian better, but they are not going to worry over it or spend a lot of time on it. On the other hand, I would love to be like those who started studying Russian at a younger age and in a classroom setting. The cultural transition went much more smoothly for them in some ways. I take heart in the good things I hear, however. My mother-in-law says she can tell I understand a lot more. I ran into my friend Natasha at the market. We chatted in Russian briefly, and she later told Oksana that my Russian sounded like “natural Russian.” Then a lady at church heard me talking to our priest at Trapeza and told Oksana she was surprised at how well “Maxim” (my Russian Orthodox name) could speak Russian. So I choose to believe there is improvement despite how slow and frustrating the progress seems. I try to relax and remember I am making improvements and, more importantly, our kids have “picked up” the language much more easily than I have. That’s a good thing.
I am grateful that, despite my frustration with the language, our adjustment to Russian culture has been easier than I thought it would be. We have purchased our home, and the work on it is scheduled to be done by the end of this month. We were able to transfer money for the purchase of the home from my retirement account with no complications. We will have well over the twice the space. I’ll even have my own study!
The economic situation in Luga is still going well. I continue to hear sometimes on American news programs how awful things are in Russia, but, as with many things about Russia, there is no evidence actually offered. While we loved all the socials and gift-giving at Christmas in America, many families like us experience financial stress after it is over. It has been better in Russia, despite the fact my retirement income is not even close to what my salary was in America. This year Gabriel got a throat infection and cough early in December. It turned out to be a long-term ordeal. He had to go to the doctor three times over a two-week period. The first round of medicines did not work so the doctor changed his medication. If Gabriel had gotten sick like that in America at this time of year it would have been a financial disaster for us. Three doctor visits and buying all those meds! Our medical bills plus Christmas gifts would have put us in serious debt. In Russia the total cost for three doctor visits in a private clinic plus the medicines came to about $40.00. After that we still could afford to buy nice gifts for family and a few friends without the huge financial stress.
The social and political status remains relatively calm here. Maybe it just seems calm, because the tension and divisiveness in my American world continues on an upward trajectory. So maybe it’s just Russia seems mild by comparison. I guess the big political news for us watchers of the international scene was that Trump announced our troops would pull out of Syria and a significant number would be leaving Afghanistan. I was not surprised at the attacks that came at him from both Democrats and Republicans, and I wonder if he can pull off the withdrawal. Apparently there is no “anti-war” party within the Beltway of Washington, D.C. A significant number in both parties seem strongly committed to keeping America perpetually at war. The old plea from the Vietnam era to “give peace a chance” is not a chant heard from many voices in Washington or pop culture these days. I do not consider myself a Trump “fan.” As I’ve stated before, he makes some decisions I think are good—like trying to bring American troops home—and others that I don’t. What I found so distressing were the base and even very vulgar attacks made on him by other politicians. It’s not like that here. That does not mean Putin has no critics. Simply because those who disagree with Putin make their points in the proper context and without crass and profane language does not mean he has used fear and intimidation to silence his critics, as some uninformed Western observers declare. I like following politics, but it’s getting tough to stomach. I heard one news commentator, whose name I did not know, refer to the “draining of civility” in Washington. That struck me as apt phrase. Hence, many of my American friends hate talking politics. It sickens them, and it sickens me that the world watches and concludes this is “real” America. It isn’t the way most Americans live their lives, but that is not how some of our political leaders make it appear on international TV.
Then the “culture war” in America also seems to continue with no end in sight. I remember years ago “tolerance” was a word used frequently as a positive virtue. Maybe I’m missing something living halfway round the world, but the culture seems decidedly intolerant in my native land. It’s different here. I can’t describe it or quantify it unfortunately, but I have experienced it. In America I can “blend in.” Here, there is no hiding the fact I’m not Russian. No one here who knows me (even casually) mistakes me for a Russian. In this small town I’m an outsider, an oddity. As they said to the disciple Peter as he tried to blend in around the fire during Jesus’ trial, “Thy speech doth betray thee.” The minute I open my mouth, they know I’m not one of their own. I’m different, and I never try to pretend I’m Russian. They know I’m from that country whose leaders and media have nothing but bad things to say about them, their leader and their country. Still, no one treats me in an intolerant manner. Further, I have found the values and virtues I consider most important in life are those shared by many Russians. There is a bond there. I don’t try to be anything but an American, but there are essential aspects of who I am that are far more important to me than being an American. I think the Russians who get to know me understand that. It doesn’t mean I still don’t feel the tension of belonging in some sense to both America and to Russia. The two Christmases remind me of that struggle. Nevertheless, I will treasure the memories and lessons of the one world and continue seeking the positive new dimensions of the other.
CHRIST IS BORN! GLORIFY HIM!