Friday, December 16, 2011

Russian Christmas in Copenhagen and Russia

A large area in the amusement park "Tivoli" in Copenhagen is laid out for a Russian Christmas with a version of the Vasilij cathedral and striped onion domes. When they visit the cathedral people are brought through Russian landscapes  - and animated pixies and angel choirs are singing Russian Christmas songs.

Russian Christmas in Tivoli

Russian church, Copenhagen, foto: gb
The Russian Christmas is different from Christmas in the West. The Russian Orthodox Church celebrates Christmas on 6. January, and the actual Russian Christmas celebrations are held together with the New Years' celebrations. A Danish woman, Connie Meyer, who  has lived in Russia since 1992, tells to a Danish newspaper that Christmas eve begins with an evening service 22.30 on of January and goes on all night. This midnight mass is held in every Russian church. The Russian Orthodox Church follows the old Julian calendar, but to most Russians this Orthodox Christmas is not their cup of tea, although 3/4 of the population describe themselves Orthodox Christians.

Moscow Red Square with Christmas tree
During the Soviet years Christmas was replaced by a winter feast, which culminated on New Year's Eve. This night was the night of  the decorated Christmast tree, the presents and the dancing and singing. The freedom of religion, which Perestrojka and finally the collaps of the Soviet Union in 1991 brought with them, has succeeded in reviving Christmas, but not in making it a dominating feast. It is still New Year's Eve, which is celebrated, and the Christmas tree is decorated on 31. December, not 6th of January. The New Year's Eve in Russia is a mix of Christmas, New Year and carnival. The young people go out and fire off fireworks after the evening meal, and Russia's answer to Santa Claus, Father Frost and his helper, Snegurotjka (Snow Maiden) give out presents during an abundance of Christmas celebrations.

Father Frost arrives in a Troika.

Father Frost and his helper origin from an ancient myth . Father Frost is like Santa Claus a friendly old soul, the Russian name is Ded Moroz (=Father Frost) - and the girl Snegurotjka, who's with him, is not Snow White from Pushkin's poem and Grimm's fairy tale, but the Snow Maiden from a famous Russian folk tale about two elderly people who ardently wanted a child. Their prayers were answered. A lump of snow, which the man in despair clenches in his fists, suddenly comes to life as a beautiful adult girl. She's living with them through winter, but when the young people of the village go to spring feast, she sneaks out to take part in the fun. This includes that the girls have to lift their skirts and jump across a fire, which is a wellknown fertility ritual - and she wants to do like the others. She jumps across the fire, and she melts like ice, she disappears. This folk tale is much more complicated and beautiful than I have told here. It's described in lots of connections.

Snow Maiden, ballet
The Russian Christmas and New Year's celebrations also include some  dressing up, like carnival, more or less colourful and more or less refined. It also includes dances like ring dance and other Russian folk dances. In some places children and youngsters dress up and go out singing. The old custom was that the house they visited put good food and other good things in their sack, and they sang songs of praise for them, but if people were stingy they sang libellous songs. After the tour they gathered in a cottage and went on feasting sharing what they had in their sacks.

Another custom connected to Christmas and New Year's Eve was to tell fortune. It was very popular, and it is still used in some places - it was especially common among young girls. The girls went to a foretell-meeting without making the sign of the cross by the door as they used to, they walked aside the usual paths to the meeting-place, they turned the sacred pictures to the wall and covered them in a cloth, and they told fortune in places, which had no connection to any gods or any ikons, places like the bath house, which was always placed isolated down by the water, the river or the lake. One way in which to foretell was in a plate with a little water, in which was melted wax or stearic - and then they took omens from the emerging patterns. The girls was usually guided by an experienced woman, preferably a widow, who helped them interpreting the omens.

It seems that those meetings also included a pawn-omen. The girls delivered an object, like a ring or earring, to the leader, who - following some rituals -  put them in a bowl with water and covered it while stirring. Then they sang some special omen songs. After each song an object was chosen, and the owner was connected to the song. The songs were not what they seemed to be. If they sang a song about the rich suitor, then it meant early death, it they sang about the rutting tomcat, then it meant early marriage etc.
Pewter hand mirror
A mirror was a usual object in foretelling, and the custom is described in "Eugenie Onegin" by the Russian poet Pushkin. He tells about Tatjana who "lifts her mirror to the moon, but in the dark mirror glitters only the sad moon". She had hoped to see an image of her suitor. Under her pillow she has a girl's mirror. The mirror is an important part of the old folk tales like the troll mirrors. And Tatjana begins to dream -  and her dream is a strange and creepy description of a reversed wedding. Under her pillow Tatjana has probably placed a bridge, a mostick - she has bound some straws in a little bunch, and she has said a long string of words which tells her suitor to help her to cross the bridge. The bridge has an important double role in Russian folklore. It's a symbol of both wedding and death.

It's difficult to know how much and in how many places customs like these are still performed, but like in other countries some old customs have survived - often in other shapes. I think the folk tale about the Snow Maiden is absolutely  beautiful. The Snow Maiden is seen in lots of versions, in various folk tales and in poetry  - she's a part of both classical and modern music - and in ballets and operas by Tshaikowsky and Prokofieff, but here is a short moment from a ballet, the Snow Maiden with music by the Russian composer Vladimir Podgoretsky.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year! 


Michael and Hanne said...

Thank you Thyra for our visit to Tivoli and Red Square!

Joan said...

How fabulous. I am envious of your wonderful winter Christmas Grethe.

Out on the prairie said...

I enjoyed the Snow Maiden tale.

Thyra said...

Thank you Michael and Hanne, I have enjoyed the pictures from Tivoli too, since it still takes me four hours to travel from my place to Copenhagen, and only the split of a second to send a post on the net. Do you remember the air-mails! They were amazing once!
Btw., I have borrowed the photo from the Red Square. The "easternest" place I have been is Prague.

Joan, I know what you mean, I'm also longing for a cold winter's day when it's a hot summer here. But you wouldn't like to be here in these days. From my window I can see the sun like a little dim coin behind a thick grey layer, trying in vain to shine through, and it is so dark every day. If the week-end will pass like this without a glimpse of the sun, I'll go bananas - or berserk! But I hope for a little nice sunbeam to-morrow......

Steve, I hope there aren't any fatal linguistic errors in my kind of tale? I think the Snow Maiden is a glittering diamond in all the other Christmas stuff, and I almost forgot the rest when I discovered the beautiful tale about her.