Holiday fun for children -- Moscow style

The children looked amazed. The Young Pioneer girl tried again to explain, then gave up. She sat down, unzipped one of her winter boots, took it off, put a brightly colored ticket inside it, and put the boot back on.

"Like that," she said. "That's the ticket for your gift after the show. Now you won't lose it."

She smiled, and sent our children with hordes of others up the stairs to the huge red auditorium of the Kremlin Palace of Congresses, which seats 6,000. No parents were allowed: hence the precautions against losing the precious ticket. Parents either waited outside or hoped to find their own children as the flood poured out again later. Independence was the key word.

It was an annual New Year show for children -- one of a variety of entertainments for all children offered here at this holiday time. The Foreign Ministry made tickets available to children of foreign residents, and we sent our children off with bated breath: Would they cope with such a crowd? Would we find them afterward?

No problem. It was all well organized, complete with television personalities, dancers, and costumed fun. When boots were unzipped and tickets regained, every child received a large red plastic star filled with candy from "Ded Maroz" (Father Frost, the Russian version of Santa Claus).

Outside again, children were made to walk in circles while parents came to reclaim them.

Normally at this time of year it is very cold in Moscow and there is plenty of outdoor skating and skiing. But this year, the weather has been unusually mild. Snow has melted and ice has turned to mush. We have had to exchange skates for rubber boots.

In past seasons we have gone to a local duck pond, checked our shoes free in a warm changing house, and skated around a tall, decorated New Year tree ("Yolichka") to a mixture of Western pop music and traditional Russian songs. All ages came out -- from tiny tots dressed like penguins in huge belted fur coats and balancing on double runners -- to war veterans still skating with ease in and around the children.

Many children left Moscow as soon as school ended Dec. 29 and went to celebrate the holidays in Young Pioneer camps, where they are well cared for and entertained. The food in the camps is said to be better than the meals they get at home. Children are ferried to and from the camps in convoys of buses sporting red flags and led by police cars. School starts again Jan. 11.

For those staying in Moscow, there is a children's theater, including a new building where the audience is met by costumed characters from Russian fairy tales.

Young animal lovers can go to the Durov animal circus, newly renovated and now covered with bright blue ceramic tiles. No humans (apart from trainers) appear on stage. Pelicans fly here and there. Wolves do tricks. Bears, porcupines, bobcats, a badger, and raccoon perform. A kangaroo holds a paintbrush and works on a drawing of a wolf. A monkey goes for a ride on the back of a goat.

The top star is Nina the monkey, who washes clothes while an announcer remarks that she does it better than Russian washing machines. He says the Russian machines wash and tear at the same time -- an unusual public criticism.

For more traditional entertainment there is ballet, especially "Chopiniana" and "Coppelia." Both are performed at the Kremlin Palace. Other ballets are offered by the company of the Stanislavsky- Danchenko theater, where tickets are more easily obtained.

A year ago I took each of our children, on three successive nights. We started with "Snegurichka" (The Snow Maiden), which pleased Sarah. Alexandra enjoyed "Strauss Waltzes" and fiery Georgian "Gayane."

When Alastair, aged eight, reached his seat, he suddenly decided he would rather be home watching ice hockey. But when the curtain rose on the shipwreck and the pirates of "Corsair," he bounced with delight -- even though he did insist on viewing the romantic pas de deuxm through the wrong end of his binoculars.

You have to search for children's entertainment here -- but you can find it if you look.

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