A Russian Christmas--Better Late Than Never : Soviet Union: Orthodox Church celebration is the first under Communists. But, as with most of Yeltsin's pronouncements, the holiday stirs a controversy.


For the first time in more than seven decades, Christmas--celebrated today by Russian Orthodox Christians--is a full state holiday across Russia's vast and snowy expanse.

As part of Russian Federation President Boris N. Yeltsin's ambitious plan to revive the traditions of Old Russia, the republic's legislature declared last month that Christmas, long ignored under atheist Communist ideology, should be written back into the public calendar.

"The Bolsheviks replaced crosses with hammers and sickles," said Vyacheslav S. Polosin, head of the Russian legislature's committee on religion. "Now they are being changed back."

On Sunday night, Alexei II, patriarch of Moscow and all Russia, led the first Christmas Eve service to be broadcast in full by Soviet television and radio. He began with a special greeting to millions of viewers.

"We call Christmas the holiday of peace and God's love of his people," the bearded patriarch, resplendent in golden holiday finery, told Soviet viewers. "I wish peace to your home and your families. May each of you feel the joy of the holiday and share it with your loved ones."

Outside the flood-lit Epiphany Cathedral where he spoke, worshipers welcomed the holiday as a day of leisure and a chance to attend services in the country's thousands of newly restored churches, many of them allowed to reopen only recently after decades of neglect and repression.

"Everyone's for it," a middle-age artist said, grinning. "No one but Yeltsin could have done this."

As he has with most of his radical decisions, however, Yeltsin stirred controversy over Christmas as well.

Sovetskaya Rossiya, a conservative Russian Communist Party newspaper, said the idea of turning a Russian Orthodox holiday into a general one offended people of other faiths, including other Christians who had celebrated Christmas on Dec. 25.

The paper said that leaders of predominantly Muslim areas had declared a work-as-usual regimen and quoted an imam in Kazan, capital of the Tatarstan region in central Russia, as saying he found the whole idea of state support for a religious holiday insulting.

"The main thing is that any holiday means the happiness of uniting people," Imam Davlet Mingaliyev said. "And for secular authorities to selectively prefer one (holiday), even if it comes from the most popular religion, means humiliation for other faiths, a bone of contention and conflict and injustice."

Sovetskaya Rossiya also complained that with the country mired deep in economic crisis, this was no time to declare a holiday. It estimated that in the Volga city of Kuibyshev alone, factories would fail to produce 500 television sets, 10,000 watches, 15,000 pairs of shoes and other desperately needed consumer goods because of the day off.

But Polosin countered that it would be simple enough to cancel another holiday to make up for the lost workday, perhaps Constitution Day on Oct. 7, which carries little significance for most people, particularly now that the Soviet constitution is being rewritten.

As for the religious controversy, he said, it had been engineered by Communist conservatives struggling for dominance in the Russian legislature.

Muslim areas of the Russian Federation are free to make their own decisions on holidays, Polosin said, and to ignore Christian feast days and mark Muslim ones.

He acknowledged, however, that this year's decision on Christmas came so late that there was little time to prepare for the holiday, and there was still some confusion about how to celebrate it.

In Moscow, it appeared that virtually all offices and schools would be closed today--even the press center of the Soviet Foreign Ministry, which answers to the central Soviet government rather than the Russian one.

Polosin said that so many general Christmas traditions have been lost that some will never be replaced. He suggested that for next year, "perhaps the optimal idea is to organize events like lectures on Christmas and what it means."

Because the Russian Orthodox Church continues to follow the old Julian calendar, it celebrates Christmas 13 days later than most of Christendom.

Under the Bolsheviks and their effort to secularize virtually all holidays and traditions, New Year's celebrations usurped many of the traditional elements of Christmas.

But Russian Christmas traditions are so varied--from sleigh rides and caroling to special meals and gift-giving--that many may take root again.

Tatiana, a young medical student who came to the Epiphany Cathedral with her mother, said she had read about a Christmas Eve tradition of fortune-telling that involved dropping wax into cold water and analyzing the shapes it forms. She was eager to try it.

In Rostov on the Don, a weeklong Christmas singing festival began Sunday, and in Volgograd, music lovers gathered for an evening of church music and Christmas stories.

And on Red Square, normally the most Spartan of state plazas, crowds with candles gathered for the lighting of a Christmas tree.

The Russian Federation decision to bring back the Christmas holiday followed similar decisions in the Baltic republics, which celebrate it on Dec. 25.

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