In the spirit of the season, I’m posting an excerpt from my novel MOSCOW DREAMS where the characters are decorating their Christmas tree. No, not a Christmas tree. Christmas celebrations were banned in the Soviet Union for a long time. So, they are decorating a New Year‘s tree. I hope you enjoy it! HAPPY HOLIDAYS, whatever holidays you’re celebrating!
“You have to see the tree!” she said to Babushka.
“You have to see something, too.” Babushka took a small cardboard box out of her black bag. “Look what I found,” she said even before they got to the living room. “I haven’t seen this box for a couple of years. And all this time, it was on top of my wardrobe!” She put it on the corner of the dinner table that was free from other boxes and opened the lid. “Remember these?” Babushka pulled out three snowflakes made out of old starched fabric that used to be white. She smiled as if remembering something, her eyes glistened for a moment.
“Of course!” Vera Nikolaevna said and gently touched the snowflakes. Marina remembered them, too. She knew that Babushka made them during World War II, almost fifty years before. Marina’s grandfather was in charge of a field hospital and he, Babushka, and their daughter, Marina’s mom, moved from one city to the next with the army. They couldn’t take any tree ornaments with them, so they made their own when they could. Marina’s mom still had a few glazed pine cones from that time.
Babushka turned to Nikolai. “These were special. Marina’s mother was the only kid in the field hospital, and all the nurses felt sorry for her around the holidays. The frontline didn’t allow for much of a holiday. To cheer her up, they gave me some medical gauze to make snowflakes.”
“They are beautiful,” Nikolai said.
Marina carefully hung the three snowflakes on the tree.
Babushka took two more ornaments out of her box, a cat and a fish made out of tin foil and painted with something that looked like faded nail polish. “And these are from my childhood,” she said.
Babushka was a young girl when the Communists came to power in Russia in 1917. Her family had always celebrated Christmas – Mom would bake pies, Dad would bring a huge tree from the forest, and the kids would decorate it. But in 1917, Christmas and Christmas trees were banned, along with all other religious symbols and celebrations.
Babushka sighed, then smiled shyly. “My parents hid all their nice Christmas ornaments in the basement, but we still celebrated. We made our own.” She handed the cat and the fish to Nikolai. “Find a good place for them on the tree.”
He looked at the two tin ornaments closely before he hung them on the tree. “When did you start decorating again?” he asked.
“In 1937, at the very height of Stalin’s terror. That’s when the government decided that it was not the tree that was the problem, but religion. So, Stalin officially allowed decorations, but not Christmas. That’s how the holiday became secular. From then on, it was a New Year’s tree and Father Frost instead of a Christmas tree and St. Nicholas. Soon, New Year’s Eve became the most important holiday of the winter season, not Christmas. Factories went back to making ornaments. But they were different. Take a look.” Babushka got out a glass ornament with a faded portrait of Karl Marx, a figurine of an ice-skater, and a clip-on parachutist, his glass parachute covered with a thin net for a more realistic effect. “Funny, aren’t they? Karl Marx, sports, and the military might — that’s what the government wanted people to believe in. No more angels or crosses.” Babushka handed the ornaments to Marina. Marina hesitated, not sure what to do with these strange ornaments. “You can still put them on the tree. It’s our history,” Babushka said.
“I remember this one,” Vera Nikolaevna said. She carefully picked up a glass rocket painted silver and red, with the large letters “USSR” on it. “When Yuri Gagarin went into space, the whole country was fascinated with space exploration.”
“And very proud,” Babushka said. “Which is much more than I can say about this.” She picked up a large, glittery corn on the cob.
“Is it some pagan symbol?” Nikolai asked.
Babushka laughed. “No, not a pagan symbol. Not at all. It was an idea by one of the Soviet premiers, Nikita Khrushchev. He visited the United States and fell in love with corn. He insisted on trying to grow it here despite our cold climate. Didn’t work. So, we only got this kind of corn.” Babushka put the ornament on the tree and looked into the box. “I think that’s it.”