Where Christmas gifts come wrapped in 'Pravda'

Hungarian-dressed hens instead of succulent butterball turkey . . . construction workers peering in through the windows of our second-floor apartment watching us unwrap gifts . . . the usual sounds of trucks, vans, trolley-buses, and cars speeding along the 12-lane highway outside our building as a normal workday proceeds. . . .

Gifts wrapped in copies of "Pravda" when we miscalculated and brought too little wrapping paper in from the West . . . carol singing in Red Square (well, one verse only before police moved us off). . . .

Those are a few of the memories we as Westerners have of our five Christmases spent here in the Soviet Union.

Dec. 25 is not a holiday in the officially atheistic Soviet Union. The Russian Orthodox Christmas is celebrated according to its own calendar on Jan 6. So it is a challenge for Westerners to have traditional Christmas on a normal working day.

Months of careful planning are needed. Long lists are taken on vacation each summer. For those of us unable to use the diplomatic pouch for anything but letters, it means stuffed suitcases on return trips.

It's impossible to rely on local shops for such items as festive wrapping paper, knickknacks, and ingredients for Christmas fare. All must be brought in from outside.

Some memories of our own Christmases: 1976: The year we tried to sing in Red Square. The children and I joined the American Embassy community, sang outside various foreign compounds, then found ourselves posed in front of St. Basil's Cathedral facing the Kremlin. We managed one verse of "Joy to the World" before plainclothes men and militia surrounded us and politely informed us it is forbidden to sing in Red Square.

We shared our Christmas dinner with a Russian encountering one for the first time, and two Australian exchange students we had never met before.

We took the overnight train to Leningrad. In -21 degrees F. air we attended a winter festival for foreigners in snow-covered woods. Performers in bright folk customes and makeup greeted us and we danced with them around a "yolichka" (a New Year tree --complete with gifts, tree, and two figures called "Father Frost" and "the Snow Maiden").

We had tugs of war, slid down ice slides, rode in a troika (a sled pulled by three horses) and watched dancing beas. Our daughter Alexandra, when age seven, was crowned with a purple headscarf as "Miss 1977."

1977: Lovely deep snow and sunshine. Forgot to import Christmas pudding or mincemeat. Used local-style ingredients: "mixed dried fruit" became a few dried raisin stored long before. "Almonds" became walnuts cracked by Alastair, age six, with a hammer. "Orange peel" became green mandarin peel.

The Hungarian hen we bought was so tough it must have walked from Budapest.

1978: I told the family I was doing it a favor by letting it wrap my presents and I tiptoed off to my usual morning ballet class. Later we opened the presents and at 12:30 p.m. had a full dinner with friends. At six p.m. we dropped in to see other friends -- and to our (well-disguised) dismay, found ourselves sitting down at another full table, eating a repeat performance.

Temperature dropped to -40 degrees F. Frost formed inside our double-windows. Heating almost stopped. Power cuts were frequent. At one point we sat in coats and hats in candlelight.

My husband and I walked to a performance at the Bolshoi, 20 minutes each way, returning with long walrus-like "whiskers" where our breath had frozen on our coats.

1979: Three American guests and a Russian began a heated discussion on the merits of Hubert Humphrey and Richard Nixon. The children quitely excused themselves and ran off to play as the argument wore on.

1980: We were prepared. My husband brought back two tins of mincemeat from boarding school in England, delivered a Christmas pudding.

We attended a beautiful carol-and-lesson Protestant service in the white-and-gold drawing room of the British Embassy, singing "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" as the Kremlin domes lay clearly visible through the windows just across the Moscow River.

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