Christmas in the Soviet Union

“The secular attributes of Christmas – the lighted tree, the gifts, the cards, Santa Claus, street decorations – have been assigned by the Soviet state to New Year’s, and it is then, starting on Dec. 31, that Russians will try to do justice by both New Year’s and Christmas, combining the midnight drinking of the former and the gift-giving and family cheer of the latter in ample measures.

The idea of the hybrid holiday is usually attributed to Stalin. In the first years after the revolution, the Bolsheviks apparently tried to stamp out the celebration of Christmas altogether, targeting the traditional decorated fir trees as a particularly glaring symbol of reactionary rituals for which there was no place in the new atheist society.

The people, however, proved reluctant to part with a cherished winter holiday. So in 1935, the story goes, Stalin did what the Kremlin has done so many times since with sticky customs – he co-opted it. He lifted the ban on Christmas trees, except that he said they were New Year’s trees, and he declared that New Year’s, Novyi God, was to be a national family holiday – a sort of surrogate Christmas stripped of any Christian meaning.

The people, it must be acknowledged, took to the idea. New Year’s has evolved into probably the most popular of official Soviet holidays, in part perhaps because it has remained largely free of the ponderous ideological and civic baggage of May Day or Revolution Day. Instead of the hammers and sickles and slogans, the streets are hung with bright lights, decorated with brightly decorated trees, and the stern Lenins and Marxs make way for Grandpa Frost, the Russian Santa Claus.”

“Capturing the Holiday Spirit; Soviet Union,” Serge Schmemann, December 22, 1985, The New York Times.

Photo:┬áBy Sergeev Pavel – Own work, Public Domain.