In the spirit of the season, I’d like to share a childhood story with you about a New Year’s Eve party at the Kremlin, in Moscow. It happened a long time ago, when Russia was still a part of the Soviet Union. This story is from my book TWELVE MONTHS OF A SOVIET CHILDHOOD: SHORT STORIES. It starts with a historical note that you can skip if you want :). I hope you enjoy it!
The idea of decorating a pine tree was brought to Russia from Germany in 1817 by Czarina Alexandra Fyodorovna, the wife of Czar Nicholas I. The practice became widely popular because the czar invited thousands of people in St. Petersburg to visit the Winter Palace, the official residence of the czar, during the celebration.
After the 1917 Socialist Revolution, all religious celebrations, including Christmas, were banned by the new Communist Government. In 1937, the Soviet government revived winter festivities, but in a secular form. Pagan and Christian images were combined and altered, and a new holiday was created – the New Year’s Eve. Soon, New Year’s trees were decorated in homes and offices all over Russia.
In 1992, religious traditions were officially allowed and even encouraged. But the New Year’s festivities continued. Russian Christmas, according to the old Julian calendar used by the Russian Orthodox Church, falls on the seventh of January. Thus, the seventh of January is the day to celebrate the birth of Jesus by attending a church service and having a festive dinner at home. New Year’s Eve is still a major holiday, with a decorated tree and gifts from Father Frost, the secular version of Santa Claus, and his granddaughter the Snow Maiden.
The glossy and rare ticket was on the kitchen table in front of me, the golden words “Kremlin’s New Year’s Party” sparkling on its shiny paper. It was winter break, and I couldn’t wait to go to this party – one of many offered during the school vacation. Early January in Moscow was a great time for kids – the holiday decorations at home and around Moscow were still up, winter break was in full swing, and many New Year’s parties for kids were happening in concert halls, theaters, and parks. I couldn’t believe I was going to the Kremlin’s New Year’s Party – the tickets were hard to come by. How did my parents manage to get them? I was excited and happy. The only detail that dampened my festive mood was that I had to go with Dmitry, my annoying older cousin.
“Do I have to go with him? He doesn’t even like girls,” I said. “And he definitely doesn’t like third-graders.”
“It’s a big place, and it’ll be nice to go with someone you know. He’ll be good to you,” my mother said and put my black shiny shoes in a bag. “When you get inside, make sure to change into these and leave your boots with your jacket in the coat-check room.”
I had been to New Year’s parties before, but never at the Kremlin. At the other parties, I loved watching the lighting of the New Year’s tree, going to live theatre performances, and meeting Father Frost with his granddaughter, the Snow Maiden. Getting a gift of sweets packaged in a sturdy plastic container shaped as a snowflake, a snowman, or a star, at the end of such parties, was a nice touch as well.
The Kremlin New Year’s party was scheduled to start at ten in the morning. Just after nine, my mother and I left our downtown Moscow apartment and took a brisk fifteen-minute walk to the Kremlin.
The morning was cold, snowy and yellow, like the sand sprinkled on the roads. We hurried past brown trees left with empty branches by the Russian winter, onto the street, and through the underpass on New Arbat Street leading up to the Kremlin. Hazy rays of winter sun played on the windows of the New Arbat skyscrapers. I loved looking at these skyscrapers, especially on holidays when their facades lit up with the words “USSR” on state holidays, or “1 May” for May Day, or “9 May” for Victory Day in World War II. On New Year’s night, just a few days ago, we watched as the numbers 1979 on these buildings were replaced with 1980 at the stroke of midnight.
Pulling my scarf tighter to stop the falling snow from getting inside my collar, I kept walking next to my mother. Soon, the red walls of the Kremlin and the four gate towers were in front of us.
“The ticket says to enter through Kutafia Tower,” mother said. The long line of shivering children with adults clearly indicated our destination – the barrel-shaped white tower with red ornamental bricks along the top. As we walked inside the tower, the only intact watch tower outside of the Kremlin left from the 1516 construction, I felt grateful for the heavy fortified walls that provided a shield from the piercing January wind.
The security officer glanced at the ticket and waved us through. We walked along the stone bridge towards another tower, the red brick Trinity tower of elaborate multi-tiered architecture of the turn of the fifteenth century. We stopped in front of the entrance to the glass and marble State Kremlin Palace, my destination and the first building on the other side of the Trinity Tower. With its modern design, the State Kremlin Palace looked like an alien spaceship that landed amidst ancient red brick Kremlin towers.
I looked around for my cousin.
“They have to transfer twice in the metro to get here. They’ll be here soon,” my mother said.
The square in front of the Palace was filled with parents giving their kids final instructions on proper behavior before sending them inside.
“Freezing out here?” a voice said. I turned around. My cousin and his father came up to us. “You kids have fun. Behave!”
“Like going to these silly shows is ever fun,” Dmitry muttered as soon as we said goodbye to our parents. We walked through the double-doors into the warmth of the building. The Palace was enormous, with many escalators, staircases, and hallways.
“The coat-check room is down the escalator,” a woman wearing a light blue jacket embroidered with a small emblem of the Kremlin told us. “To your right.”
“Thank you.” I turned right.
“I just hate it when people tell me what to do,” Dmitry muttered.
“She’s just trying to help,” I said and pulled him towards the escalator.
“She probably hates kids,” Dmitry said. “Who would want to have her job anyway?”
“There’s nothing wrong with her job. Plus, she probably gets to see all the shows she wants,” I said. “And that’s really wonderful.”
Dmitry opened his mouth to argue, no doubt, but we were already on the underground level and had to get off the escalator. We followed the other kids to the coat-check room. I felt freer and lighter after I got rid of the coat, the hat, the mittens, the scarf, and the big winter boots.
“Up that way,” the coat-check lady told us. “All the way to the big mirror. Escalator on your left.”
“There are hidden cameras behind that mirror,” Dmitry whispered when we got to the escalator. “To watch for stuff. And I don’t like when people watch me. Or control me. I like to be independent.”
That was typical Dmitry, always looking for the weirdest and strangest explanations of simple stuff. How did he come up with these ideas?
I looked at him in disbelief. “What do you think these imaginary cameras are watching? Kids putting their shoes on? Let’s go upstairs,” I said. “Can you smell the pine tree?”
Soon, we were in a brightly lit hall with shiny marble floors and sparkling chandeliers. A pine tree reached to the vaulted glass ceiling. Kids stood around the tree, gazing at the colorful ornaments and shimmering tinsel garlands. Two clowns, a short fat one and a tall skinny one, stood next to a girl in a pink dress. The tall clown bowed to her, pulled a candy bar out of her ear, and handed it to her. The short clown erupted in wild laughter and rolled on the floor.
Three jugglers, looking high up at the ceiling, threw and caught small blue balls. First just one ball, then two, then three…
“Look! Six balls in the air at once!” I said.
“It’s good. But I bet I could do it if I practiced.” Dmitry made an indifferent face and turned to the window.
Suddenly, the hall lights twinkled and dimmed. The clowns and jugglers stepped aside. The room was quiet with anticipation.
Clad in a sparkling silver robe, carrying a sack full of gifts on his back, Father Frost slowly walked into the room, banging his staff on the marble floor. “Happy New Year! Happy New Year! New Year brings new happiness,” he boomed. The Snow Maiden, his granddaughter who always accompanied him to New Year’s parties, was next to him. She was dressed in a silver jacket, shimmering blue skirt, and white boots. Her long blond hair was braided. The top of her head was decorated with a sparkling silver crown.
“Dear kids, we had a difficult journey across the snow and ice of the North Pole to get to your party. Let’s wish each other a Happy New Year,” the Snow Maiden said.
“Be good this year, obey your parents and always do your homework,” Father Frost said.
“Like I’m going to listen to some old guy,” Dmitry said.
“Old guy?” I could not believe what he was saying. “It’s Father Frost! How can you talk about him that way? And he’s right. Nothing wrong with doing homework and being good.”
Dmitry scoffed at me. “I’ll do what I want to do.”
I turned away from Dmitry and towards Father Frost and the Snow Maiden.
“But dear kids, something is not right with this party.” The Snow Maiden walked around the hall, a worried expression on her face. “Do you know what?”
Dmitry poked me in the ribs with his sharp elbow. “It’s the same thing every year. No lights on the tree. Now, they’ll make us yell for the lights to come on.”
“Can’t you just have fun?” I said and stepped away from Dmitry and closer to the Snow Maiden. “I love seeing the lights twinkle on the tree.”
“The tree is sad,” the Snow Maiden started, “because its lights are not on. Repeat after me, ‘One-two-three, light up the tree!’”
After the first round of chanting, the lights did not come on. After a few more tries, when the chanting was judged by Father Frost to be loud enough, the tree lit up, and the party was officially started.
We were ushered into the concert hall to watch a play about the Old Year, a character who looked like Father Time, who presented the Baby New Year with his “walking stick.” Soon after, the Baby New Year was kidnapped by evil spirits dressed in all black who wanted to stay in the past and did not want to welcome the New Year. Eventually, the baby New Year was freed and the evil forces were captured.
“My favorite part now,” Dmitry said. “Candy.”
We walked out of the concert hall and into the lobby where long tables along all the walls were stacked with miniature Kremlin Trinity Towers filled with candy. Palace employees were giving them out as the kids came up to them. Dmitry and I walked to one of the tables and exchanged our tickets for two plastic towers that smelled like chocolate.
Back in our coats, hats, and scarves, we left the Palace and, escorted by the Kremlin security officers, exited into the Cathedral Square where the six thousand eagerly awaiting parents formed an enormous circle along the walls of the square. “Walk inside the circle until you see your parents,” a security officer told us. The parents yelled out their kids’ names, waved hats and scarves in the air to attract the kids’ attention; it was a slightly odd yet practical system for picking up children.
Plastic Trinity Tower clutched in my gloved hands, I walked inside the circle. In the crowd of moving kids, I lost sight of Dmitry. I walked a little more, then heard my mother’s voice, “Julia! Julia!” I ran out of the circle towards her. She was standing next to Dmitry’s father at the far end of the square.
“Good party?” my mother asked. “Where’s Dmitry?”
I turned around but couldn’t see my cousin. The palace square was filled with yelling parents and circling kids. “He was with me the whole time,” I said peering into the crowd. With many kids and parents gone now, the three of us moved closer to the center of the shrinking circle of kids. In a matter of minutes, all the kids were reunited with their parents. The quiet and empty square seemed even colder now.
“Where is he?” Dmitry’s dad was clearly agitated and worried. “Maybe, he stayed inside the building?”
The three of us walked back to the Cathedral Square exit – the doors were now closed, the lobby lights off. We came closer to the glass walls of the Palace and peered into its darkness. We could not see anyone inside.
“Let’s go back to the main entrance,” mother said. “Maybe, he got out there?”
The main entrance looked even darker. No kids or parents were around, just a security guard dressed in a thick winter coat, ear flaps down on his fur hat. He came up to us. “Is there a problem?” he asked, thick white vapor coming out of his mouth.
“I don’t see my son,” Dmitry’s father said. “The kids were at the party together…” He pointed to me.
“Maybe, his mother or grandmother picked him up?” the security guard said. “Did he go home with a friend?”
“No, I don’t think so.” Dmitry’s father shifted from foot to foot.
The security guard took a radio out of his pocket and called over to the Palace, “Masha? Any kids left inside? No? You sure?” He put his radio back in. “No, nobody inside. You have any numbers to call?”
“Yes, yes, I do,” Dmitry’s father said.
“Don’t worry, tovarish, no kids have ever been lost at the Kremlin,” the security guard said. “Let’s go inside.”
He led us to a side entrance. A small desk with three phones on it was right inside the door. “Here,” the guard moved one of the phones towards us. “You can call from here.”
Dmitry’s father dialed his home number, then our home number, then a couple of other numbers. No answer anywhere.
“Leave his description with me and a phone number where I can reach you,” the security guard said.
“Leave our number, too,” mother said. “Let’s go to our apartment and wait for him. It’s much closer to the Kremlin.”
Slowly, our mood somber, we walked back to our apartment. Snow was falling down in thick white flakes from the darkened sky. Cars and buses, dirty from the snow and sand, sped by.
“Where did he go?” Dmitry’s father said. “That kid is always trouble. Just doesn’t want to follow rules.” He sighed. “I hope he’s okay.”
We walked down New Arbat Street, then turned into the small street leading up to our apartment building. Soon, we were inside. I pushed the elevator button.
When we got out of the elevator, our apartment door was open. “I saw you out of the window,” my father said. “Dmitry just called. He’s at home. He said he doesn’t like being treated like an old suitcase on a baggage carousel. So, he ran to the metro and went home by himself. How was the party?”
Dmitry’s father sighed with relief, then shook his head. “I’m glad he’s okay.” Then, he reached into his pocket and took out a white envelope with blue snowflakes. “Here are two tickets to a party at the Cinematographers’ Club tomorrow.” He handed the envelope to me. “Take a friend. The old suitcase is grounded.”
Feeling a little bad for Dmitry, I thanked his father and took the tickets. Maybe now, Dmitry would learn to take the words of Father Frost about behaving well more seriously.