The Soviet Square

by vpundir | January 15th, 2008

The difference between life expectancies of males and females in Russia is almost 15 years. Staggering, isn’t it? One of the commonly cited reasons is rampant alcohol abuse – those “just one more glass”‘s of vodka or samagon quickly add up, it would seem.

And though mostly no justification is needed for downing another Jurij Dolgoruki, trust the Russians to find more reasons to drink (or as us marketers would put it, “more consumption occasions”). Apparently one day of new year celebrations wasn’t enough to get them adequately drunk. Or perhaps, after 3% of the new year is over, the hangover of the booze consumed on new year’s eve becomes unbearable. Eitherway, on 13 January, they celebrate the new year again. And since the Russian people had very little experience with alcohol before Christianity was introduced, they pay a tribute to Christianity by celebrating Christmas twice too.

All jokes aside, the lively Russians do celebrate Christmas and New Year twice. After the October Revolution, in 1918 Russia gave up the Julian calendar in favor of the Gregorian calendar by Lenin’s decree, moving all dates forward by 13 days. So while Russia celebrates Christmas on 25 December with the rest of the world, the Russian Orthodox Church’s official Christmas falls on 7 January and is widely celebrated.

Just as well, since we could all use a little more celebration. Some puritans might argue that it would be absurd to celebrate Christmas (contraction of Christ’s Mass) on any day other than on the birthday of Jesus Christ. But the fact is that nobody really knows that date.

The Biblical narrative certainly does not provide any reference to it, just like it doesn’t to the number or names of the wise men that followed the Star of Bethlehem. And while historians have pinned down the year of birth to between between 8 BC and 4 BC, they don’t seem to be able to make up their minds about the actual date.

Sextus Julius Africanus’ Chronographiai circa AD 221 is often credited with popularizing the idea that Christ was born on December 25. In keeping with the Jewish belief that prophets live for an integral number of years, he assumed the traditional date of crucifixion (March 25) to also be the date of the Incarnation and contended that nine months thereafter should be the date of birth or nativity. Some scholars assert that Constantine may have chosen the date of December 25th to celebrate Christmas so as to coincide with the celebration the birth of Mithras, the Persian god of light.

Eitherway, 25 December is hardly the only celebration of “chirst’s birthday”. For instance, early Eastern European Christians celebrated the birth of Christ as part of Epiphany (January 6), which focused on the baptism of Jesus. Considering that Jesus was baptised in adulthood, this date probably makes more theological sense as it symbolizes spiritual birth. Besides, since technically the date of birth is shrouded in uncertainty, it might appear more rational that this date would be more widely accepted for the celebration.

That said, baptism of an adult does not evoke an emotion nearly in the same vicinity as that evoked by the birth of a child, however devout one might be. I would also speculate that the leadership of the early Christian Churches needed to give their new adopters a winter festival, if not to let them keep their winter festivals.

Winters are a hard time – days are short, there is not too much work that can be done, and yet there is a lot of leisure time at hand though the prolonged darkness makes it unnatural to socialize. Hence, many cultures have a festival of lights in winter, providing the followers a means, an occasion to defy nature’s edict for gloom, and to socialize and make merry.

Winter solstice has special consequence in this context. The day after the solstice is the first day in the natural cycle that is longer than the previous day. No surprise then that many cultures celebrate this day for the same reason that the new moon is such a vital motif in Islamic tradition.(1) And a new religion would probably not be very appealing to prospective adopters if it were to take away their one day of joy in the long, cold, dark days of winter.

Conspiracy theorists suggest that perhaps Christmas was created to mirror the Roman Saturnalia, a week long period of lawlessness between December 17-25. According to Greek writer Lucian, Saturnalia was marked by a human sacrifice, widespread intoxication, going from house to house while singing naked, rape and other sexual license, and consuming human-shaped biscuits.

According to these hypotheses, Christianity imported Saturnalia in about 4th century CE to convert pagans by allowing them to continue to celebrate the Saturnalia as Christians. To remedy that there was nothing Christian about Saturnalia, they named Saturnalia’s concluding day, December 25th, to be Jesus’ birthday. However, they didn’t focus on changing how the festival was celebrated. According to University of Massachusetts Amherst history professor, Stephen Nissenbaum, “In return for ensuring massive observance of the anniversary of the Savior’s birth by assigning it to this resonant date, the Church for its part tacitly agreed to allow the holiday to be celebrated more or less the way it had always been.” The earliest Christmas holidays were celebrated by drinking, sexual indulgence, singing naked in the streets (a precursor of modern caroling), etc.

While speculating, perhaps it was the adoption of these pagan traditions because of which Origen, one of the most distinguished of the early fathers of the Christian Church, denounced the idea of celebrating Christ’s birthday and contended that only sinners, not saints, celebrated their birthdays. In fact, allegedly due to its pagan origins, observance of Christmas was illegal in Massachusetts till as recently as 1681.

But I digress. Back to the Russian Christmas.

I guess the Russian Christmas might well be the reason that some of the Christmas decorations in London streets aren’t taken down even after Gregorian Christmastide or the Twelve Days of Christmas despite the superstition that keeping Christmas lights up after the twelve days bodes back luck.

And yes, the Russians do also celebrate the new year again on 13 January. They call it the Old New Year. Oxymoron, you say? Yes, that did come to my notice, but that’s not what this post is about.

Come to think of it, though, were the Russians to think of pre-1700 (pre-Gregorian) times, would they also start celebrating the Old Old New Year on 1 September? Psst, my Russian friends….I am giving you an idea, and I haven’t even copyrighted it. Just don’t forget to invite me to the party!

Anyway, fortunately this year the 13th January was a Sunday. Naturally I was in Trafalgar Square to participate in the London Russian Winter Festival, which has quickly become a tradition withing four years of its existence.

By the time I got to the square, the festivities had already started, and a group of colorfully, majestically clad ladies was performing a folk song-dance sequence. The square was beginning to fill up quickly so I wasted little time, and sneaked my way through the crowd towards the stage, till I reached an acceptable distance (translated: as close to the stage as I could get before the way was completely blocked by revelers).

Slavyanye obviously love what they do. These folk-singers were full of energy and exuded unbridled enthusiasm and good humor on stage. They sang one lilting, uplifting tune after another, and even made several valiant attempts to get the crowd to sing along or dance or wave or do something. Unfortunately, it was noon and the crowd, with notable exceptions of course, hadn’t had a sufficient number of vodkas by then to accede to the request. Whatever anyone may think of these girls, I thoroughly enjoyed their gig.

Quick on their heels was Baikal – the Buryat National Ensemble. They showcased Buryat traditional costumes, customs, song and dance, which were exotic and charming. At the back of my mind, I couldn’t help but think that their folk music and dance resembled those of some cultures in north-east India to quite some extent.

They were followed by a couple of young celebrity acts by wannabe stars. The first was an irreverent latex-clad concert by a “group” that calls itself the Aqua Aerobics Project. Essentially, it’s a lead singer covered from head to toe in pink latex, and some random people doing random things around. All said and done, though, its sound is not bad.

Next on stage was Mark Tishman, the winner of a TV talent contest. He has a decent voice, and seemed to be crowd-pleasing performer. In fact, he got off-stage and into the crowd during the act, and performed his last song from there.

The first top of the class performance of the day came from Kostroma, the Russian National Dance Show. They performed several songs, and in every single one of them they were enchanting, charming, elegant, and, most importantly, inspiring. They were zestful, masterful, and full of good humor. I would have no hesitation in paying to see them perform.

I was also thoroughly impressed by the electric atmosphere and the enthusiasm of the crowd, although I have a sneaking suspicion that the intake of the free booze available at the stalls might have contributed to that in some small way.

It was during Kostroma’s performance that little Russian flags were distributed among the audience. These were dutifully waved to soulful renditions of some songs, and the crowd even pitched in with their vocal cords.

Then there was the customary “this event is important” talk by London Mayor Ken Livingstone, Russian Ambassador Yury Fedotov and Russkiy Mir General Director Vyaceslav Nikonov.The highlight, I guess, was that Vasily Vanovoi was present, and chimed in with Pushkin’s words: “(Eat, drink and be merry) Delight in the time we have left”.

After the dignitaries got off-stage, stand-up comic Sasha Revva joined the compere, who initially tried to translate his words, but gave up pretty soon. Sasha joked about how many Russians coming to London know only “four” English words – Hello, Bye, Thank you, and Orange juice. While I did not understand most of his jokes (because most of the jokes were in Русский), I could see that this guy was born to be a comedian. No, he is not a physical comic, but his mannerisms betray his profession. He coaxed us to sing “moroz moroz” in what he described as a bid to create the world record for the world’s biggest karaoke. Fun stuff!

Next, Sankt Peterburg occupied the stage. Their performance was relatively lackluster – a little off, even though it wasn’t bad at all. In any case, I am almost certain that this was not the Sankt Peterburg band that I have heard of. It just was not that band, despite what the organizers would have everyone believe.

The yesteryears’ super-group, thereafter-pretty-much-spent-force and recently-reassembled-with-fanfare Zemlanye showed why they ruled the rock scene in their time.

The two girl band KuBa was peppy and I can see why they would be popular among teens.

The Fabrika trio was pretty casual and laid back. Their music sounds chic, and might become pretty popular with a little bit of refinement.

I had to leave shortly before the draw of the day, Dima Bilan, was to take stage. What a bummer!

All in all, a thoroughly enjoyable event. Why can’t 52 countries just decide that they’d celebrate new year in different weeks, and then have their festivals in Trafalgar Square during the respective weekends? Hmmm…

Dasvidaniya!

Click here to check out my pictures from Russian Winter Festival in Trafalgar Square of 13 Jan 2008.
P.S. – There are two pages in this album! If you’re not running the slideshow, don’t forget to check out the second page 🙂


1. My hypothesis: Islam spread quickly through Arabic countries and Egypt and became relatively dominant there before most of the rest of the world. A substantial portion of these geographies is covered with desert, and hence outdoor activities, especially travel, are extremely limited during the day. During the night, the moon is a chief source of light and a navigational aid. Thus moon is a vital part of life. And after a dark night, new-moon night is when the light starts growing. Hence the significance of the new moon crescent symbol.

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