A Most Unlikely Christmas Story

The year was 1935.   It was the middle of a worldwide depression.   Theeconomic hardships their parents were undergoing made it a tough year for many children that Christmas.   One little girl in particular had no hope of any kind of Christmas celebration at all.   Her mother had committed suicide a few years earlier.   Her father was “difficult”.

To make matters even worse, this little girl lived where two mean-spirited Grinches did more than just try to steal Christmas one year.   They actually outlawed Christmas altogether!   These Grinches were Red with black hearts!   In fact, in the country where 9 year old Svetlana lived, Christmas had been banished so long ago she never had a chance to celebrate the season like so many other children around the world.

This particular year, however, there were two interesting and very unlikely circumstances that meant Svetlana was in for a big surprise.   The first was that Svetlana was not just any little girl.   She was the daughter of one of the

Joseph Stalin with Svetlana - 1935

very Red Grinches who had outlawed Christmas in her country.   Svetlana was in fact the daughter of Joseph Stalin, head of the Communist Soviet Union!

The other Red Grinch, his predecessor Lenin, had originally outlawed Christmas after the communist revolution in 1917.   Not only was Christmas outlawed in the Soviet Union, thousands of beautiful churches throughout Russia had been destroyed (hundreds just in Svetlana’s hometown of Moscow).

In fact, the very symbol of the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow, the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, 105 meters high right smack in the middle of Moscow, had been blown to smithereens by order of her father, Comrade Stalin.

Christmas was not only banished, but anyone who would dare to celebrate it, by having a tree or any other symbol of this grand holiday, was subject to fines, imprisonment or worse!

But there was another interesting circumstance that very same year, one which could hardly be expected in this cold gray Moscow winter.   There was another man in Russia – a man who knew Joseph Stalin well; knew the things he was capable of; knew that the dreaded secret police would immediately be called on anyone who dared to celebrate Christmas.   And yet, just outside the Kremlin walls, across the Moscow River, in plain view of the Kremlin and directly under Joseph Stalin’s nose, this man was planning a gala Christmas celebration!   This man would celebrate in style; giving a party with trees and lights and presents – and he didn’t worry one bit about Comrade Stalin.   In fact, he invited Comrade Stalin to come to his Christmas party!

Who was this “mad man,” and why would he dare defy Stalin for a Christmas celebration?   He was one of the few men in Russia who could get away with such defiance, because he had one critical thing going for him and his Christmas plans.   The thing was this:  He was the British Ambassador to Russia!   Embassies of foreign countries, by international convention, sit on sovereign soil and are not really a part of their host country.   The laws of the Soviet Union and the iron fist of Comrade Stalin could not reach into the British embassy compound and stop Christmas.   He could have his Christmas celebration right there looking up at the Kremlin, with no fear of reprisal.   Of course there was no way Comrade Stalin, who carried on Lenin’s repression of Christmas and who himself had tried to wipe out religion in the Soviet Union, would even think of attending a Christmas party at the British Ambassador’s house.

The British Embassy, 1935

For reasons unknown, he did however allow his daughter, Svetlana and her brother to attend the party at the British Embassy!   How excited little Svetlana must have been to dress up, leave the Kremlin, cross the river, and attend the festive celebration at the English ambassador’s home that chilly December night.

When Svetlana returned home she could hardly contain herself.   “Papa,” she said, to the mustachioed dictator, “you can’t believe everything I saw.   There was food and candy and presents.   And, oh, Papa, there was the biggest most wonderful tree and it was so pretty with all its decorations.   Oh, Papa, it was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.”

And then that cold, steely eyed Red Grinch of a dictator got an idea.   He got a wonderful, awful idea.

He could use this Christmas, this spirit, this celebration for his own purposes.   There were many adjectives one could use to describe Comrade Stalin, but one would have to concede that he was indeed a master of psychological manipulation.   This black-hearted dictator could see in the shiny eyes and the big smile of his own little daughter’s face how happy she was.   In fact he had never seen her so happy in all her life.   He thought to himself, “Imagine, if this celebration can make this girl so happy, how happy other children could be…and how their parents would be delighted to see the same joy in their children’s eyes…”

And who could take credit for it all?  Why me of course, the old Grinch thought; why not Stalin himself?

He got right to work and he got to work fast.   Just a couple of days after the party at the Ambassador’s home, there was an announcement during the weekly government radio address that Comrade Stalin had declared that the country was making great progress on their economic plans and that he wished to declare a celebration.   More than this, Comrade Stalin wanted to bring this celebration into the home of all Russians.   It was announced that on January 1st each and every Russian family would have a live, beautifully decorated tree, not a Christmas tree, mind you, but a New Year’s tree; not to acknowledge Christmas, but to celebrate the achievements of the Soviet Union.

There were only about five days between the night Svetlana came home from the Ambassador’s party and the New Year.   How could it be done?  Father Christmas, Santa Claus, and FedEx altogether would have a hard time doing it now, but the logistics in 1935 must’ve seemed even more daunting.  Not to Stalin, who had the “devoted” labor of the entire country at his command.

The red Army was completely mobilized.   A campaign of cutting, decorating, and delivering trees commenced throughout the country.   Within those few days between Christmas and New Years, the soldiers, by use of every means of conveyance from trucks to airplanes to trains to boats, had delivered over 25 million trees — one to each and every Russian family.

From that day on, Russians have celebrated the New Year rather than what we Americans think of as the traditional Christmas of December 25th.   They now celebrate the Russian Orthodox Christmas of January 7th in a religious sense, but presents, trees, cards, and other secular good wishes are centered around the New Year’s celebration.

To this day, at year’s end, Russians all congratulate one another, not with “Merry Christmas” or “Seasons’ Greetings” but with the words: “S’Novim Godom,” an abbreviation of “Congratulations for the New Year”.

Now, 70 years after that Christmas party that Svetlana attended, what has changed in the Russian celebration?

Well, many churches have been rebuilt including an exact copy of the Christ the Savior Cathedral right in the middle of Moscow and clearly visible from the Kremlin.   Holiday trees are everywhere, from homes and shops and stores, to the middle of Red Square itself!

Lenin's Tomb

The Red Square tree sits just 50 meters from Lenin’s tomb.   When it is open for viewing Lenin’s mausoleum is still crowded with many tourists and Russians.   But at year’s end when the giant tree goes up, the landmark mausoleum is closed; closed for the holiday season; closed so as not to conflict with the celebration of Christmas and the New Year.   The tomb sits cold and dark in the shadow of the Kremlin towers; in stark contrast to the dazzling St. Basil’s Cathedral and the festive tree.   Lenin, who outlawed Christmas, is outlawed himself- by the New Year’s Tree!

Red Square in December


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