Christmas in Moscow is weird.
For the most part there are no carols or family around the holiday table, no Santa Claus, Christmas stockings, presents or holiday photo cards. There are no candy canes or gingerbread cookies, or morning brunches with muffins around the Christmas tree and wrapping paper blazing up the fireplace.
December 25 is just a normal working day in Russia. Our expat church is mostly empty – the majority of our friends head out to celebrate Christmas in the West, and you have to hunt up a church service with strangers at an Anglican church with a malfunctioning fire alarm. Winter holiday festivities don’t even begin until New Year’s Eve, and Orthodox Christmas midnight church services and beeswax candles aren’t until the first week of January.
I thought it wouldn’t be a big deal to me. Swamped with work, and looking forward to the quickly-approaching New Year holidays, I was even gloating a little bit – congratulating myself on the privilege of escaping the mid-December shopping and sugar cookie binges. I thought a quiet Christmas would be refreshing.
Alone on Christmas morning with economist husband out running errands, I realize that this holiday, complete with tree ornaments, candles, family meals and songs about reindeer and snowmen, is really, really important to me.
It’s kind of embarrassing – after decades of sermons on the true meaning of Christmas, I thought I’d welcome an empty, quiet day to contemplate the 2000-year old miracle of God deciding to trade heaven for a life of sorrow and suffering in Roman-ruled Palestine just because He loves us. Instead, I’m up early – teary-eyed and feeling sorry for myself in the kitchen, baking the banana muffin and egg casserole brunch so dear to my Minnesota-raised heart.
I’m surprised at how deep the sentimentality runs, and I’m ashamed at how I’m crying more over self-pity than anything else.
It’s not that I miss the flashy store commercials, the reckless binge buying and all the rush or even the Santa Claus cartoons. It’s kind of a relief not to have to go along with it all, actually.
I do, however, miss the tradition, the day apart, the feeling you get when everyone around you is celebrating something.
The cultural significance of American Christmas quickly dawned on economist husband after finding me red-eyed and sniffling over a banana-walnut scented oven.
One of the cool things about being married, and especially about being married to someone from a different country is that you get to start over – a new family, new traditions. December 25 is like a blank slate in Moscow, and we can fill it in with whatever we want. So we’re thinking about how to set Christmas apart next year and what kinds of new traditions we want to start. I love that we can drop Santa and keep the Christmas carols if we want or replace shopping binges with Advent countdowns and candles. I love that we can pick and choose and mix the old with the new, the Russian with the American and the sentimental with the holy.
I’m not really sure how to avoid getting tangled up in my own red and green colored, pine-scented nostalgia in the future. I’m pretty sure that our unpredictable, constantly-shifting international family will find it hard to store up lots of Christmas decorations or maintain much consistency in traditions from year-to-year. But I think the tradition, and the day set apart are important. And I think that it all might have a lot to do with focusing on what’s important. Like family and friends and the God who made all this love possible in the first place. We resolve that Christmas next year will be different – a day apart…
More on a December Christmas overseas: